Published Editorial

Giving jaywalkers the safe alternative of skywalks

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The Hindu Business Line

by

Devendra Parulekar
Partner, Advisory Services
EY

Mumbai has seen a huge influx of people over the past few decades, which has overwhelmed its infrastructure, particularly transportation. This, combined with unmaintained sidewalks, footpaths spilling over with hawkers, and unsafe subways has added to pedestrians’ woes. To address this issue, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) began to build skywalks in the city and its suburbs. However, residents do not seem to be very enthusiastic about the initiative. More than 36 skywalks were set up, costing almost Rs 750 crore, but most of them have reported a drop in footfall over the past few years. While in June 2011, 12 lakh commuters used skywalks, the number dipped to 7.4 lakh within a year. This despite the fact that Mumbai has almost 65 lakh pedestrians daily, and studies indicate that 57 per cent of road fatalities involve pedestrians.

The recent news of the upcoming Grant Road/ Nana Chowk skywalk, built with an investment of Rs 50 crore, was heavily criticized. The public’s complaint is that end-user preferences were not taken into consideration at the planning stage. Moreover, the disabled and elderly have not been provided adequate access to skywalks. In addition, there are security concerns. As a result of these issues, declining footfall, and the huge cost involved (Rs 25 crore a year) in maintaining the skywalks, the program was shelved in 2011.

However, if technology is put to good use, these problems may be resolved effectively.

Considering the size and importance of the petroleum sector, the proposal to subsume its products under GST is a positive one as it allows the industry to utilize the input tax credits on the goods and services consumed in the supply chain (from exploration and production to distribution and marketing). Thus, it mitigates the cascading effect of taxes. Further, the Centre and States can converge on the standardization of tax policies, which could, to a large extent, simplify the associated regulations, processes, and compliances.

‘Big data’ to the rescue

‘Big data’ refers to the collection of large, complex, and unstructured data sets. This data is collected from various sources, such as mobile devices, tracking systems, radio frequency identification, social networks, internet searches, and e-commerce. Inexpensive storage, ever-increasing computing power, and modern analytic tools can be used to analyze large chunks of continuously generated ‘big data’ to provide useful insights.

By using mobile network triangulation, network carriers can identify the approximate geographic location of any mobile user through roaming signals. Algorithms that calculate the speed of a device’s movement can help detect whether the journey is by foot or on a vehicle. By collecting such data and integrating it with the map of Mumbai, authorities could get a live feed of foot journeys in the city. Moreover, to remove any outliers, mobile data should be collated from multiple telecom service providers with a high subscriber base. In addition, telecom operators can pinpoint the exact geographic location of a mobile phone that has Global Positioning System or GPS.

This data could be used to plan skywalks along popular pedestrian routes. Entry and exit points could be constructed at regular intervals to enable convenient accessibility. Privacy concerns can be sufficiently addressed by keeping the data anonymous. Aggregated mobile network data can help government authorities make better decisions for the city’s infrastructure and traffic planning, reduce costs through increased efficiency, and better serve the citizens.

Improved safety

Security is a primary concern — most commuters avoid skywalks in non-peak hours because of the presence of beggars and anti-social elements. While CCTV surveillance is necessary, the challenge is the need for an army of people to monitor live feeds. This concern can be resolved by using video analytics tools that compress long hours of footage into a few minutes of relevant feeds. Such tools also allow for pinpointing an area of interest in the video, and indicate unusual activity. Also, if hawkers’ movement is restricted to certain areas, this may make the skywalk safer.

Improving convenience

Another concern is that skywalks have stairs to climb and are long on foot, making it difficult for senior citizens and the physically disabled. To address this, authorities could consider installing moving walkways, such as escalators and horizontal travelators.

Monetizing skywalks

Authorities could consider generating revenue through out-of-home (OOH) advertising, by placing hoardings or digital displays along the skywalk. Digital displays are gaining greater acceptance from marketers as they address a ‘captive’ audience that is short on time. In the backdrop of falling capital expenditure requirements for technology rollouts and flat screens or digital displays, and adequate availability of reliable broadband technology for content dissemination, digital OOH is set to gain steam.

Overall, while skywalks are a brilliant idea, the authorities should step up their planning efforts.

Recently, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, approved MMRDA’s Rs 50-crore budget for skywalks to be built in financial year 2014. However, before taking a step forward, authorities should study and fix the issues raised.