Elphinstone Bridge stampede is a reminder of role good urban design can play in averting tragedies

Footbridges in India, often hastily-constructed passages of narrow proportions and tacky design, evoke nether awe or oration | #ByDesign | #FWeekend

Radhika Oberoi October 15, 2017 10:07:01 IST
Elphinstone Bridge stampede is a reminder of role good urban design can play in averting tragedies

Editor's note: Beginning 15 October 2017, we're running a new series called 'By Design' that looks at Indian cities from the perspective of urban design. How can design make the quality of life in India cities better? How can the architecture of our infrastructure prevent life-threatening situations like flooding, or rush-hour stampedes? What solutions can simple design changes offer to monumental urban problems? We'll be discussing all this and more, in 'By Design'.

Hindsight, in the wake of tragedy, brings with it the cold comfort of belated wisdom. For when the dust has settled and the body count has been conducted with morbid accuracy, an indelible realisation often casts its shadow on the facts and statistic: this could have been averted. The stampede on the foot over-bridge that connects Parel station on the central line of Mumbai’s suburban railway network to Elphinstone Road station on the western line, is a recent and unfortunate example of preventable cataclysm. A scrutiny of pedestrian spaces in cities where walkers and gazers are in constant peril of being knocked down, will not resurrect the dead. But it might, from the vantage of hindsight, delineate the predicament of those on foot, and unearth solutions in urban design that could diminish the possibility of impending doom.

Elphinstone Bridge stampede is a reminder of role good urban design can play in averting tragedies

Foot overbridge at Indraprastha Marg, Delhi. Photos courtesy the writer

Elphinstone Bridge stampede is a reminder of role good urban design can play in averting tragedies

A footbridge is meant for pedestrians, and may allow cyclists and the movement of cattle. Its construction may vary from the simple suspension bridge, or a rope bridge of the most primitive kind, to highly arched moon bridges, to planks, broadwalks, and truss bridges. One of the oldest footbridges that still stands as a majestic motif of an ancient civilisation, is the Pons Fabricius or the Ponte dei Quattro Capi, in Rome. It was built in 62 BC, a year after Marcus Tullius Cicero served as consul in the Roman Republic. Constructed over the Tiber River, and spanning half of it, it is 62 meters long and 5.5 metres wide, connecting Campus Martius on the east to Tiber Island in the middle.

In India, it is the road and railway bridges that gleam from the annals of history as emblems of marvellous engineering. Stretched across torrential rivers, or slicing through skylines jagged with glass-and-chrome towers, vehicular bridges are epics in lattice grid or steel truss. The Sutlej Bridge, for instance, which was built between 1865 and 1870, and originally consisted of 41 spans of 99 feet, one of 99.67 feet, one of 96.67 feet and four of 71 feet, inspired a speech by the Maharaja of Patiala, who was the chief guest on the occasion of the opening of the bridge on 15 October 1870:

“Major general Abbot — Surely, it is a matter of great joy, and honour to me that I have come here on this happy occasion to open the railway communication between Lahore and the seaports of Calcutta and Bombay, in fact to connect the well-known three great railway lines in India, a work which His Excellency the Viceroy and Governor General of India himself intended to perform.”

Footbridges in India, often hastily-constructed passages of narrow proportions and tacky design, evoke nether awe or oration. The foot over-bridge at Elphinstone Road, or Prabhadevi railway station, on which around 22 people died during a rush-hour stampede on 29 September 2017, was built in 1972. Snehanshu Mukherjee, a Delhi-based architect and founder-partner at Team for Engineering Architecture and Management, describes the tragedy on the bridge as a “study in bureaucratic apathy.” He argues that the pandemonium on the bridge was not caused by the bridge (its faulty design or cheap construction material), but by “the failure of concerned authorities to take timely action to keep it safe.” He refers to a pedestrian bridge constructed in recent times, which collapsed. “Remember the foot over-bridge built in Delhi in 2010, before the Commonwealth Games, which came crashing down?” he asks pertinently, before dwelling on the plight of pedestrians in crowded metropolises.

Elphinstone Bridge stampede is a reminder of role good urban design can play in averting tragedies

File photo of stampede at Mumbai's Elphinstone Bridge. Image courtesy PTI

Elphinstone Bridge stampede is a reminder of role good urban design can play in averting tragedies

A crane removes waste from a collapsed pedestrian bridge outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi in September 2010. A footbridge being built for the Commonwealth Games in India collapsed, injuring 27 people. Image courtesy REUTERS

Mukehrjee deliberates upon the decisions that are taken by city planners. “The kind of choices that are made usually favour the motor car driver,” he states, adding, “Footpaths get eaten away by road widening, which is done ostensibly to reduce traffic jams.”

Cities then, ought to be planned from the point-of-view of pedestrians. And with narrower spaces for walkers, foot over-bridges become vital links for commuters to get across roads heaving with traffic. But over-bridges can be challenging for the elderly and the disabled; often, the escalators that lead up to the bridge are stationary. “Climbing a non-working escalator is tougher than climbing a staircase, as the rises are higher,” says Mukherjee. Ramps too, are cumbersome, and are sometimes used by two-wheelers to cross the road. “A ramp takes up a lot of length; to go up one metre, one may need a ramp that is around 12 metres long, horizontally,” he explains.

Elphinstone Bridge stampede is a reminder of role good urban design can play in averting tragedies

Snehanshu Mukherjee. Photo courtesy the writer

In Delhi, for instance, there are around 73 foot over-bridges. Several of them have escalators that are dysfunctional, and are not disabled-friendly. Despite the flawed design of many of Delhi’s pedestrian passes, the Public Works Department has initiated the construction of the city’s longest pedestrian over-bridge, the ITO Skywalk. The 523-metre skywalk will be equipped with lifts, escalators, ramps and canopies, and is expected to cost around Rs 41 crore.

Whether the ITO Skywalk will operate with efficiency and precision, or whether it will hang over the city like a faulty contraption that is ugly to boot, remains to be seen. Foot over-bridges in Indian cities may never achieve the intricate engineering and design of the Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin in London, conceived by Thomas Heatherwick in 2004. The curling bridge with triangular steel segments, and hydraulic actuators, extends to a length of 12 metres to carry pedestrians, and curls up to form an octagonal shape to allow the passage of boats. Indian foot over-bridges, with their iron railings on the central verge, have a rudimentary function and design, and a rethinking of both usually entails additions like ramps and lifts.

Elphinstone Bridge stampede is a reminder of role good urban design can play in averting tragedies

Subway in ITO, New Delhi. This one includes a street-food cafe. Subways, like metro stations, can become destinations in their own right. Photo courtesy the writer

A few planners and teachers are of the opinion that subways or underpasses are easier to access and may need shorter ramps. “Descending is always easier than climbing up,” says Ranjit Mitra, former director and head of urban design at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) in New Delhi. Arunava Dasgupta, who currently heads the department, emphasises that pedestrian spaces, whether overhead or underground, must meet requirements of both feasibility and comfort. Commenting specifically on the railways, he says, “When it comes to the railways, they have the basic infrastructure in place. And that is simply not enough. One needs to question whether the infrastructure has gone through enough technical design review.”

While Delhi is a radial city and Mumbai, a linear one, each city should have a transport system that corresponds to its urban structure. “It would be a mistake to assume that Delhi should depend on the Ring Road and Outer Ring Road, while Mumbai, on its suburban railway lines,” explains Dasgupta. Multiple lateral connections reduce the pressure on high-density vehicular corridors, and eases the movement of pedestrians. Also, given the context of a railway foot over-bridge, a method of ensuring that the crowd moves in a certain direction only, could prevent a stampede. “During rush hour, a crowd may get confused about where to go. It should be streamlined by allowing it to move in one direction only,” he suggests.

Elphinstone Bridge stampede is a reminder of role good urban design can play in averting tragedies

Ranjit Mitra. Photo courtesy the writer

Elphinstone Bridge stampede is a reminder of role good urban design can play in averting tragedies

Arunava Dasgupta. Photo courtesy the writer

A crowd in a narrow space, rushing to catch a train and befuddled by a lack of directional signages, might develop frightening characteristics that lead to accidents and stampedes. Gustave Le Bon, in his seminal exposition, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, published in 1896, dwells upon the these characteristics, which are imperceptible in isolated individuals: “The first is that the individual forming part of a crowd acquires, solely from numeric considerations, a sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint.” The second, contagion, is described as a hypnotic phenomenon. “In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious, and contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest.” The third, discusses Le Bon, is the disappearance of an individual’s conscious personality, and the predominance of his unconscious personality. “Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian — that is a creature acting by instinct.”

A mass of people acting by instinct is perhaps the cause of the stampede on the Elphinstone Road foot over-bridge. But a careful design interface — one that integrates modes of transport with spatial, landscape and signage considerations, could prevent a throng of commuters from turning into creatures driven by panic and fear.

Stay tuned for more from our 'By Design' series over the coming weeks. 

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