Would you like to ascend a high walkway, walk a thousand metres and expect the unexpected at the other end?

If announcements were walkways, we could all have a great hike. Unfortunately, they are not, although the media tries to give us a different impression.

So when we hear that an astronomical sum of Rs. 65 crores is to be spent on creating an elevated walkway (‘skywalk’) with some 13 entry and exit points, escalators, elevators and so on in one of the high-density areas around iconic Chennai Central, we cannot but ask: would not a few lakhs turn the other footpaths in the rest of the city pedestrian friendly?

Remember also that the costly elevators put up in a couple of places in the past are shut down in the evening. Would it not be better to make road-level walking and crossing more accessible, rather than create such elaborate white-elephant structures that ultimately don’t make a big difference?

Don’t forget too that ‘skywalks’ are neither people-friendly nor egalitarian. They do produce walking spaces, but unlike the more accessible surface-level footpaths, are fraught with safety risks if they are deserted, poorly lit and unguarded. They cannot accommodate small vendors, and hence serve no wider social objective to enhance urban livelihoods.

What makes skywalks seem attractive is the state of our present pedestrian infrastructure. Recently, the NGO Transparent Chennai launched its walkability mapping project, and called for volunteer help to undertake a field assessment. Among the major parameters that the study hopes to look at is the availability of footpaths, their width, the type of activity in properties located along footpaths, actual volumes of pedestrians using an area to determine the optimal footpath width, the right material for the walking surface, height of the kerb and so on.

To the architect and the urban planner, obviously there is much work to be done to add some rudimentary attributes of usability to Chennai’s footpaths. After all, our administrators have displayed a lot of contempt for walkable public spaces in general, slashing them down and cutting them into small ribbons to favour users of motorised vehicles. Now, if what we read is correct, the wheel is moving slightly in favour of new facilities for pedestrians – of course at great cost to the taxpayer – who has already paid for the wanton destruction of these facilities earlier. Clearly, pedestrians are being billed twice.

On the point of walkability, here is a picture taken today, on Station Road, Kodambakkam which leads to the suburban railway station. The footpath has been resurfaced recently, but encroachment by shops has not gone away. Notice the box of a service agency that blocks the full width of the footpath, and which has a cascading effect, encouraging others to encroach upon adjoining space. There are two obstructing service boxes here, one belonging to the Traffic Police, and another the electricity agency. Chennai is full of such roads, most of them hosting dead space on either side. The problem is worse in residential streets with housing blocks taking over a part of the footpath for ‘beautification.’ Even major roads have numerous encroachments by official agencies. Thoughtless planning and indifferent governance combined can cause a lot of pedestrian agony.

The road leading to the Chintadripet MRTS station in the second picture is another case in point. It was more than 5 feet wide earlier, but was hacked away to make more space for vehicles. The remnant of the ‘footpath’ runs into the transformer of the electricity agency, and another portion beyond is occupied by the ‘blue box’ for waste bins put up by the Chennai Corporation. The intention here is not to enable people to walk unhindered to the railway station and beyond. The footpath is an ornament.

There are hundreds of such examples in Chennai. What they show is that governments prefer expensive showpieces rather than sustainable, low-cost solutions.