Footpath clues: where are they?

Research by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT reveals there are new footpath and urban design challenges faced by people with low vision or blindness. The research is part of a longitudinal study to understand what environmental and footpath clues are needed and used. Tactile indicators are only part of the story even when they are present and properly placed.

A total of 622 people with low vision or blindness from around Australia took part in the survey. Many challenges impact their confidence in getting out and about. New-style urban design features are creating additional challenges.

Image from Walking for Everyone Guide

A woman wearing bright blue clothing is holding a white cane while walking along a residential street.

The first survey was conducted in 2015. The 2023 survey revealed new challenges not mentioned in the earlier survey. Micro-mobility, shared paths, shared roads, and crowd protection barriers are now on the list of challenges.

Shared paths

The application of shared paths has increased significantly since 2015. Consequently, this emerged as a major issue in 2023. The speed and unpredictability of cyclists and micro-mobility users means these paths feel unsafe.

Flush finishes

Another new and popular urban design feature is flush finishes. Not surprisingly, 80% of respondents lacked confidence in crossing roads when the footpath and road were at the same level. Places where the road and footpath are level are often found in shared zones and flush finish intersections. Respondents over the age of 65 find these finishes particularly unsafe.

The absence of clear distinctions and continuous finishes hinder straight-line navigation. This is made worse by street furniture, goods displays and outdoor dining positioned along the building line.

Flush finishes at intersections with traffic lights where there are no gutters, kerbs or kerb ramps are a significant challenge. With multiple lanes of traffic in both directions, together with buses and light rail, create high levels of anxiety for safety. Consequently, they are often avoided.


Key wayfinding factors for safe travel are based on maintaining a straight path, safe road crossings, and knowing where it safe and hazardous. This is regardless of whether the person is using a cane, a guide dog or their remaining sight.

Kerb ramps are vital markers. People who are blind or have low vision know to pause and assess the situation. They also reinforce appropriate guide dog behaviour when approaching roads.

Read more about this research in an article in Access Insight. It’s titled, Environmental clues: Using them and losing them. The article explains why newer street and urban design features are preventing people with low vision or blindness from equitable use of our public domain.

From a universal design perspective, many design features that are essential for some, are also good for others. Children are taught to stop at kerbs for safety, and older people prefer clear separation between footpaths and other zones. People with neurodiverse conditions, including dementia, also need clear signals to navigate the built environment.

Walking is supposed to be good for us, but not if street design causes anxiety and prevents people from making journeys.

Tactile markers vs wheelchairs: A solution?

One paper that sparked a lot of interest at the UDHEIT conference is the thorny issue of pedestrians and wheelchair users negotiating those yellow strips of tactile markers. Tactile markers, known as Braille Blocks in Japan, cause problems for wheelchair users, pram pushers, and others with mobility difficulties.

Based on research by Yoshito Dobashi in the context of public transportation, the solution seems simple. Create small breaks in the line of tactile blocks to make wheelchair and baby buggy crossing points. These crossing points are now installed in Fukuoka city and in some airports, but not yet on a national scale.

Train platform showing wheelchair crossings across a strip of yellow tactile markers.

Dobashi cautions that, “…improvements need to be made in response to the voices of visually disabled persons who note that the crossing points pose a hazard to them. In his latest study, Dr. Ito of the University of Tokyo proposes a new braille block system that incorporates an improved version of braille blocks with wheelchair crossing points upon verifying its feasibility with wheelchair users and baby buggy users.

Good research paper by a man passionate for his topic and keen to find solutions. The image shows Dobashi presenting at the universal design conference in 2018 in Dublin.

Yoshito Dobashi pointing to his slide at the UDHEIT conference showing wheelchair crossing points, one with a man wheeling a suitcase.

The title of the paper is, Re-examining the Creativity of Universal Design Initiatives in Public Spaces in Japan.  You can download the full paper by clicking the download pdf link.

The article is from the open access proceedings of the UDHEIT 2018 conference held in Dublin, Ireland, an open access publication.

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