Aerial visions and grounded realities
AIR-CONDITIONING on, music blaring, we accelerate from the last set of traffic lights onto the flyover. Signs flash by: ‘Prohibited: pedestrians, cycles, handcarts, bullockcarts’, and ‘No Entry: bus, lorry, tempo’, and one depicting a car travelling upwards at 45 degrees. The route is continuous, clear, mostly smooth; we dart past a honking sports utility vehicle and are overtaken by motorcycle riders. On the rails along the side of the flyover, advertising for life insurance declares: ‘Heads you win, Tails you win’. Up above through the car’s tinted windows I can see billboards: ‘Invest in India’s best performing infrastructure fund’, and pictures of a new Indica Vista car. The road gently twists and turns; an exciting collection of Mumbai buildings appear and then pass by: grand mosques, art deco apartment blocks, the skeletons of new high-rises in the distance. Down below streets crammed full of people puncture a continual array of shabby exteriors, balconies and open windows only a few metres away.
The red BEST bus trundles into the dark canyon created as the flyover lifts off and separates from the street below. Waiting taxis, waiting buses, MCGM waste trucks, parked cars next to ‘Reserved Private Park’ written in black letters onto the concrete. The bus makes the first of many stops; the bus shelter advertising flights to Riyadh and Jeddah. We inch back into the road. We pass beauty parlours, photo shops, Gulshan-E-Iran, Luggage Planet, banks, Atlas World Travel, Suleman Usman Bakery. Traffic takes its chance to cut across: scooters with two people, handcarts heavily loaded with boxes and pipes; a bullock cart with tarpaulin hiding its load, the Muslim Ambulance Society.
Signs urge ‘No Horns’ and ‘Silent City, Better City’, yet the cacophony continues regardless, sounds echoing back and forth off the flyover. Another red light: traffic police attempt to direct the crossing bikes, vans, buses and porters carrying a cupboard and a mattress. Bohra ladies with children struggle to cross the street. Water streams down from one part of the flyover above and two boys dressed in shorts enjoy a drenching. By the flyover piers, people rest and play cards; hawkers sell shoes, underwear, food; there are posters for elections and for ‘Ashrafi: Lowest Price Shopping Mall in Mumbai’. A barber in his street stall has an afternoon nap; an older gentleman with a white beard in the middle of the street shakes a stick repeatedly as if to scold the flyover.
Leaving the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) building in the Bandra-Kurla business district, I decide to take the new skywalk, Mumbai’s first, to Bandra train station. It is hard to miss with bright yellow struts and roofing. I climb the stairs up onto the very clean and evenly surfaced walkway. There are no obstacles, apart from an occasional bench and rubbish bin and the few people on the skywalk are all purposefully moving forward, directed by blue signs with arrows and Hindi script. I join men with briefcases, students with rucksacks, and smartly dressed women with handbags. I enjoy the ease of walking this route with sunlight streaming across the walk-way and gentle breeze coming in from Mahim Creek. The Expressway below rumbles and to the right is the large mirrored India Oil building with steps coming down from the skywalk to it. The skywalk meets another branch and the route becomes much busier. On one side is a drainage channel, large water pipes, small patches of crops and the backside of huge advertising hoardings next to the main road. On the other: multi-storey housing made up of brick, corrugated iron and tarpaulin, flags across the street, and a bus shelter with a Yahoo ad with the slogan ‘Your world of possibilities’. I take some photos but a uniformed security guard appears and tells me to stop. Apparently I need permission from the MMRDA.
The monsoon rains pelt down as I walk along the road next to the sky-walk. On the right side are small ground floor businesses busy with people: a photo studio, Xerox centre, a chai shop. On the left, directly under the skywalk, is a collection of makeshift housing with a ‘relief office’ and a ‘free medical centre’. A fire had swept through Behrampada a week before and this I assume is where many of the displaced residents are sheltering. A steady stream of rickshaws, vans and taxis weave down the muddy road slicing through several large puddles.
At the end of the road, I can see people lined up against the skywalk’s rails surveying the scene in Behrampada. Just below are several parked lorries and an advertising board for Yash Chopra’s new film, New York, with the World Trade twin towers depicted a ghostly white. As I walk round the corner towards Bandra station, avoiding several dogs, I can see more clearly some of the damage wrought by the fire. People are sitting in burnt-out ruins playing cards. Diggers have been parked in front – but it is not apparent if they are here to help remove the remaining debris or to further demolish housing.
As these observations from June and July 2009 suggest, the contemporary Mumbai street exists in more than a horizontal dimension. Contrasting everyday experiences of street life, and visions of its future, are located at different vertical levels, close together, yet seemingly far apart. Although streets in Mumbai have always been situated at different heights, through the nuances of the city’s topography as well as through the construction of road and rail bridges from the 19th century, differences in verticality have become increasingly marked over the last decade.
In contrast to the thirteen elevated road highways (flyovers) constructed between 1963, when India and Mumbai’s first flyover was opened at Kemp’s Corner, and 1997, over fifty have been built since 1998. Some of these stretch over numerous junctions, such as the 2.4 km flyover along the Mohammed Ali Road detailed above, whereas most are simply ‘hop-overs’ at one junction. Adding to this new vertical emphasis on movement through the city since 2008 have been elevated pedestrian walkways – skywalks. Since the opening of the skywalk connecting Bandra station to the Bandra-Kurla complex, over thirty others have been built, largely designed to allow pedestrian access to and from train stations above busy streets and localities nearby.
Along these new flyovers and skywalks there is generally a spectacle and sensation of fast uninterrupted circulation, carefully regulated and organized. Down below, underneath these new structures, movement is usually slower and more unpredictable and haphazard. There tends to be a wider variety of people, vehicles and activity, as well as a rich array of smells and sounds. Whereas a quick journey is generally the guiding rationale up above, people below not only pass along the street but shop, chat, sell, sleep, play and linger. A vertical divide has seemingly been created in Mumbai over the last decade between the archetypal modernist street of circulation and connectivity, and the vernacular street of encounter and heterogeneity.
Such contrasts, with an accompanying range of speeds, rhythms, sensations and lifeworlds, have always been a constituent feature of cities. What is new is the relationship and dynamic that has been established between above and below. It is important to recognize that these new vertical streets in Mumbai have been produced and framed in direct response to the streets underneath. Flyovers and skywalks have been used as a way of trying to inscribe efficiency and predictability onto and over the perceived chaos and illegibility of the horizontal city. There has been a frustration that Mumbai’s increasingly congested and stop-start traffic flows do not meet the ideals of the rational metropolis or the contemporary ‘world class’ city.
By building elevated roads and restricting certain slower moving vehicles such as buses, handcarts and cycles, it is assumed that it is possible to bypass the inertia and crowds of the city below and match the free-flowing standards and aspirations of cities such as Shanghai, Dubai and Singapore. Similarly, the construction of elevated walkways, often including designated hawker zones, aims to shift perceived blockages and obstacles – pedestrians and street vendors – upwards, allowing less impeded vehicle flow.
The new vertical streets of Mumbai have been created to enable particular groups to move through the city without having to acknowledge and negotiate the widespread dispossession and poverty that remains the dominant and abiding experience for most people below. They have likewise enabled certain neighbourhoods in the city, such as Behrampada, deemed to be dirty and disruptive, to be evaded, disconnected and literally overlooked. With their carefully maintained structures, and restricted and regulated access, flyovers and skywalks act as an extension of the gated residential colonies, shopping malls and business districts that many people have travelled from or are travelling to.
At High Street Phoenix, a major upmarket residential, retail and entertainment destination in central Mumbai, many of the signs offering directions match the lettering and blue colour of those on transport routes through the city. As with the new elite spaces of the city, moving along new vertical transport structures, generally in climatically controlled situations, means Mumbai is experienced at a remove, with the city flashing by as a series of fragmented images rather than being more viscerally and continuously felt.
Although the creation of new, elevated streets in Mumbai has helped allow the urban worlds underneath to be circumvented, it has not meant that the streets below have been left alone. The construction of flyovers and skywalks in Mumbai has often been accompanied by new efforts to discipline certain people and activities. The spaces under many flyovers, although containing a range of uses and socialities, have increasingly been fenced off or carefully landscaped with slopes and plants to restrict or hinder squatters. Most flyovers have security guards patrolling underneath twenty-four hours of the day. This is not only to monitor accidents and any structural issues with the flyover but, particularly in more central locations, to evict and harry people sleeping or resting in these spaces or attempting to put up posters. Seemingly direct attempts have been made to use the ordered and free-flowing streets above to squeeze and squash the heterogeneity, dynamism and plurality of the streets below.
The new elevated streets and walkways of twenty-first century Mumbai, such as the flyover along Mohammed Ali Road and Bandra East skywalk detailed above, have opened up significant new dimensions in experiencing and moving through the city. But they have not simply added a new vertical layer onto the existing social and cultural worlds of Mumbai. They need to be conceived in direct relation to the streets below, often being constructed and utilized as part of efforts to bypass, seclude and discipline a rapidly growing mega-city. Nevertheless, dreams and hopes of new free-flowing streets above Mumbai, ameliorating and superseding the perceived chaos and congestion of the ground level city, largely remain and are likely to continue to remain frustrated. Just as it is impossible to examine flyovers and skywalks without considering their relationship with existing Mumbai streets, their planning and implementation have been shaped and infiltrated by what might be viewed as traditionally horizontal concerns, blockages and difficulties.
These include funding and planning disputes across different government and parastatal agencies, and legal challenges from shopkeepers, local residents and other concerned citizen-groups. For example, the Barfiwala flyover in the western suburbs, which opened in 2011, should have taken fifteen months to complete but instead took six years due to delays in land acquisition and the rehabilitation of project affected persons. The Santa Cruz-Chembur Linking Road, incorporating India’s first double-decker flyover, started construction in 2003 but is still to be completed, and the budget has spiralled five times over the original estimated cost.
Delays have been caused by protracted negotiations over funding and construction between the World Bank, Central Railways, the Maharashtra State Road and Transport Development Corporation (MSRDC) and residents of hutments and housing colonies impacted by the new route carved out by this project. Disputes over a proposed flyover on Peddar Road, a major route into the southern tip of the Island City, first considered in plans devised by the American consultants Wilbur Smith in 1963, continue to fester. High profile residents along the route of this scheme, including the singers Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, have been vocal in their objection to this project and plans have so far stalled.
In addition to delayed projects, or those that have yet to got off the ground, the complications in implementing dreams of a new vertical world of streets in Mumbai are clearly evident in unfinished or underutilized structures and spaces. For instance, the escalator at Bandra West skywalk, which opened in 2010, is covered in tarpaulin and yet to work, or the fly-over near Kurla West bus depot, part of the Santa Cruz-Chembur Linking Road, is now used by schoolchildren as an impromptu adventure playground and cricket pitch. There is also the area underneath the 1.5 km Andheri flyover along the Western Express Highway, originally conceived when the flyover was built in the late 1990s as a lucrative opportunity for a new shopping mall and entertainment hub that is still lying empty. This vast space, subject to ongoing legal contestation by environmental activists, was used until 2007 by a community of squatters who have now been pushed out to pavements along the side of the road – although it was still deemed suitable for child-begging scenes in Slumdog Millionaire.
Ultimately, there has been little if any assessment of the necessity or effectiveness of these new vertical structures in improving traffic flows, and minimal consideration of cheaper if less visible traffic management systems. Against wider international thinking in transport planning, bus rapid transport systems, road congestion charging and bike lanes have not as of yet been introduced in Mumbai. With exponential growth of car ownership many of the new streets above have become just as busy as below, or sometimes have not been widely used, particularly in the case of suburban skywalks.
It is revealing that several recently constructed flyovers are already considered outdated and many skywalks are used as much for flying kites and romantic rendezvous as they are for pedestrian movement. Understanding the future of the Mumbai street will require not only acknowledging important new vertical dimensions and possibilities, but ensuring that issues and dilemmas around sustainable urban transport and the politics of urban mobility are examined before looking skywards.
* This piece draws from a research project entitled ‘Vertical Urbanism: Geographies of the Mumbai Flyover’, funded by ESRC Grant RES-000-22-3127. For further flyover and skywalk material from Mumbai please visit www.verticalurbanism.com