FOOTBRIDGES or elevated crosswalks continue to be built in many Philippine cities and municipalities. This needs to stop. All over the world, many footbridges are being demolished because they are unsafe and regarded as hostile to pedestrians. Footbridges are an example of car-centric infrastructure that makes cities less livable, less walkable, and less environment- and climate-friendly.

Generally, footbridges are built in order to remove ground level (also referred to as "at grade") pedestrian crossings so that cars don't have to slow or stop for people. In a country where only about 6 percent of Filipino families are car owners, footbridges are fundamentally unjust. They force the vast majority to undertake longer and more laborious travel in order to shorten trips for the privileged minority who ride in cars. Footbridges without ramps limit the mobility of the significant segment of the population unable to climb stairs: those with disabilities, the elderly and people carrying heavy packages or with small children.

Footbridges have long been considered "bad practice" and unsafe. The Global Street Design Guide, an authoritative reference for urban and transport planners, has this to say: "Grade separation: Always provide pedestrian crossings at grade, except in instances where they cross limited-access highways or natural features such as rivers. Pedestrian overpasses and underpasses take up sidewalk space, dramatically increase walking distance and are frequently avoided by pedestrians in favor of a more direct crossing. They are very expensive and need regular maintenance to keep them clean and safe. In many cases, they are underutilized and poorly maintained. By removing pedestrians from the natural surveillance of the street, they raise personal safety issues."

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a leading source of mobility advice and best practice, found that many pedestrians avoid using footbridges because they are unable to climb stairs, are unable to walk long distances, or are concerned about crime. Many are deterred from using footbridges because of the fear of being attacked or mugged, especially at night when the crossings might be dark and deserted. For these reasons, even when a footbridge is near, some take the risk of running across the road.

To battle our crises related to climate change, energy and mobility, we need to encourage Filipinos to choose sustainable travel modes — walking, cycling and public transportation — instead of private motor vehicles. Every footbridge, however, delivers the opposite message: "You need to be in a private automobile to enjoy faster and more direct travel while everyone else has to endure the inconvenience of the footbridge." This is the wrong message at a time when we need fewer cars on our roads.

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Footbridges are also unnecessarily costly and wasteful. A Mexican NGO, Liga Peatonal (Pedestrian League), has estimated that an elevated crosswalk costs twice as much to construct as a "world-class" safe pedestrian crossing with proper signs and traffic signals and costs 2.4 times as much to maintain.

Footbridges that have stairs instead of ramps or elevators violate Philippine laws (e.g., Batasang Pambansa 344, the Accessibility Law) that require all public infrastructure to be accessible for persons with disabilities. Such footbridges are therefore illegal structures. The accessibility requirement was very much in the minds of legislators when they included the following directive in the special provisions of the Public Works department's 2022 budget: "Pedestrian crossings shall by default be at grade for the inclusion of persons with disability, senior citizens, pregnant women, children with strollers, tourists with luggage and parents with children, consistent with public health and safety regulations."

On major urban roads in Tokyo, Seoul and New York (even on roads that are as busy as EDSA), pedestrians cross at street level, not on footbridges. The smooth and efficient flow of vehicles and pedestrians is managed through integrated traffic signal systems. Traffic lights are synchronized to achieve a "green wave," where successive intersections on the same road are all green simultaneously and then shift to red also at the same time to allow pedestrians sufficient time to cross.

The famous Gangnam Road in Seoul has five lanes of vehicles in each direction, just like EDSA. Even with street-level pedestrian crossings every few hundred meters, traffic on Gangnam Road flows smoothly. After it was re-designed to be pedestrian-friendly, the Gangnam area became one of the leading centers of economic activity despite the road being one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the country.

The moral of the Gangnam Road story is that we should now be repurposing major corridors such as EDSA, Commonwealth Avenue, C5 and even the densely populated MacArthur Highway as urban roads or boulevards rather than expressways by adopting street-level crossings and managing vehicle speeds to prioritize pedestrians and promote road safety.

Any national agency or local government that intends to construct a footbridge today will only be erecting a monument depicting its hostility to pedestrians and its unjust treatment of Filipinos without cars. One day, when footbridges in the Philippines are lined up for demolition, it would be useful to check for any plaque or marker with the names of responsible officials. People will want to know who should be held accountable.

Robert Y. Siy is a development economist, city and regional planner, and public transport advocate. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @RobertRsiy