Mumbai's Walkability Problem: Plenty of Pedestrians, Not Enough Sidewalks

Though the city sees 15 million walking trips a day, the infrastructure is abysmal. But some developers are trying to change that.

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Mark Bergen

MUMBAI -- In the middle of the road just outside Citi Mall, Rishi Aggarwal and I are stuck. We made it only halfway across K.L. Walawalkar Marg, the broad boulevard in the northern neighborhood of Andheri West. So we wait on the median. We then do what many of the roughly ten thousand others who cross the same street every day do: find an opportune moment to sprint to the other side.

As Aggarwal shows me his native city, I thought of my own. Earlier this fall, Michael Coleman, the mayor of Columbus, Ohio, unfurled another set of plans to make his city more "walkable." Like many other mayors of vacated U.S. cities, his announcement was part desperate plea to convince people to move by foot.

Cities like Mumbai, as they scramble to manage their swelling numbers, hold a critical advantage that metropolises in the tinier democracy do not:  Indians walk.

Every day, Mumbai pavements host around 15 million walking trips. Many are en route to buses or trains, or both. Yet nearly a third of these trips are completed on foot alone. For a majority of the many households here earning less than $100 a month, walking is the sole means of travel.

But Indian cities can be impossibly cruel to pedestrians. Before crossing, Aggarwal and I watch a blind man navigate deep potholes beside a bus stand. "It's a complete mess," he sighs.

Construction for the new metro blocks a sidewalk in Andheri West (Mark Bergen).

Four years ago, Wilbur Smith Associates scored 30 Indian cities on a walkability index, pegging the national average at 0.52. On the same index, London scored more than three times as high. Mumbai came out higher than others, buttressed by two of its wealthy neighborhoods. In Powai, for example, where opulent modernist architecture has been the backdrop for scores of Bollywood films, sidewalks and green paths are abundant.

But these neighborhoods make up only a small slice of the massive metro area. Bringing walkable spaces to the dense remainder of Mumbai, with its abundant poverty, makeshift homes and messy property markets, is a much more difficult task.

This is due in part to the sheer number of cars now on the road. During the city's boom years, 2003 to 2008, Mumbai saw a 45 percent hike in registered vehicles. At the same time, traffic fatalities increased by 10 percent annually across the country. A 2011 study found that a whopping 78 percent of road fatalities in Mumbai involved pedestrians.

But though the cards seemed stacked against them, a handful of activists are trying to make Mumbai more hospitable to walkers. Aggarwal is one of those people. The long-time environmental activist recently launched the Walking Project to educate and agitate about the conditions pedestrians face across his city. To do so, he takes people on plenty of strolls.

After we cross the street boulevard, we're met with a crumbling sidewalk. Beside it is a glossy office selling luxury cars. It's one of the innumerable symbols of the city's staggering disparities. "The buildings come up first," he tells me, "then infrastructure comes later."

Midday traffic moves along in northern Mumbai (Mark Bergen).

Aggarwal and others are beginning to see some progress on the city's outskirts. Though the central city still caters almost exclusively to cars, developers have some flexibility in creating pedestrian-friendly streets in the suburbs cropping up around land-starved Mumbai.

These regions are less entangled with Mumbai's infamous real estate red tape. "In the city," explains Surendra Hiranandani, managing director of House of Hiranandani, one of the city's largest realty firms, "one has to follow a rigid plan. Any changes are totally dependent on the government initiatives, which are few and limited."

Across several major cities, developers are fleeing city centers for these virgin areas. For transit advocates, targeting developers in these plots is key. "Before they actually build it, if you can get them to incorporate it into their plans, it is a lot easier," says Divya Kottadiel of EMBARQ India.

Her group is currently working on a project in MIDC Marol, an industrial area, to create a swath of vibrant pedestrian infrastructure---walkways, enhanced bus shelters and speed regulations---around an upcoming metro station.* A major obstacle in the past, she explains, is that the city and state governments often tackle problems in silos, one issue at a time. When parking becomes a problem, they build a parking lot. When traffic chokes a street, they widen the street. "We're trying to get them to look holistically," Kottadiel adds.

As we walk down one road recently expanded, Aggarwal points out the inadvertent aftermath of the silo tactic: the new road budges farther into the rows of the mostly unregulated street vendors competing for space. Pushed off the shrunken sidewalk by vendors, more walkers flood onto the busy streets.

"Everything happens by accident," he says, dodging goods splayed beside the road, "not design."

But perhaps that is slowly changing. Ashok Datar, of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network, says residents of his affluent neighborhood, Bandra West, are resistant to walking, even within close proximity. Yet as traffic in the city worsens, their aversion to driving grows as well. By his estimate, an astounding 65 percent of the cars in the city are manned by professional drivers---their wealthier owners content to let someone else take the wheel. 

A citizen group in Bandra West recently inaugurated a wide public walkway by the sea, an impressive feat in the packed island city. Advocates are lining up more of these projects, Datar says. But he's realistic---they are taking them as the city allows, one kilometer at a time. "We are slowly creating," he says, "a mindset that was missing until now."

* Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified MIDC Marol.

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