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Reading the route beneath us

Ways city sidewalks design pedestrian pathways for different levels of mobility

A train tunnel showing tactile paving -- the raised edge to signal to those visually impaired that they are close to the edge of the tunnel.

Published on August 12, 2019

In bustling urban environments, it’s rare for people stop to think about the sidewalk they traverse every day. For an able-bodied person, it’s even rarer.

When was the last time you considered the bumps or grooves in the cement beneath your feet?

For those with any degree of visual impairment, the design of our sidewalks serves as more than a place to walk. It is full of clues about our built environment – serving as hazard warnings, directional guidance, or even alerting pedestrians to the presence of an amenity.

This type of design is called tactile paving. Originally created in Japan in 1965, the idea didn’t become popular in Canada until being implemented in transit in the 90s. It wasn’t until the 2000s that it became part of many cities’ building codes.

Tactile paving has since become essential to providing safe mobility options for people with visual impairment. They are rigorous enough to be felt through the use of a cane or underfoot, but do not create tripping hazards to those using strollers or mobility devices.

Not all tactile paving is created equal, either. Different textures have different meanings and can be designed differently in cities around the world.

A raised edge next to a subway tunnel
Blister paving, or truncated domes, are used to warn pedestrians they are at a road crossing and can be often found on ramps. In Canadian cities, these are most often a bright yellow colour. This provides higher contrast for pedestrians with partial sight.

When blister paving is offset (the domes are not in straight lines but laid out in a diagonal) it alerts people to reaching the edge of a danger, such as a train or rail platform.


A tunnel


Horizontal stripes or corduroy paving serve as a hazard warning. These grooves are usually found at the top of stairs or where a footpath joins a multi-use path to alert pedestrians of potential cyclists.

If you feel along stripes or vertical stripes to the direction you’re going, those serve as guiding paths and let pedestrians know it is safe to continue.

There are many uses for tactile paving and these are just a few examples of ways cities design sidewalks for the visually impaired. Some organizations provide ‘Walk and Wheel Audits’ in areas to determine the level of mobile accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists of different abilities. Many cities could still benefit from implementing safer routes in order to improve mobility options for all.

To some tactile paving may go unnoticed, but to many it is an essential element of navigating their city.