Finding your way through the city: How the blind use our footpaths

Mt Eden train station is filled with signs and signals for travelers with low or no vision (Anna Bracewell-Worrall/Newshub)
Mt Eden train station is filled with signs and signals for travelers with low or no vision (Anna Bracewell-Worrall/Newshub)

Ever stopped at a crossing and looked down, wondering what those yellow dots below your feet are for? Or those raised yellow stripes leading to the AT Hop-card reader at train stations?

They are tactile pavers, used to help people with vision problems navigate the city. We'll get to how, exactly, they're used, but they're not the only often overlooked feature of the city that helps people find their way around.

Noticed those little domes at the beginning and ends of handrails? Those are for the blind too. They indicate the beginning and end of a handrail, otherwise the handrail just drops off without warning. There’s also the noises made by elevators and at pedestrian crossings.

A truncated dome marking the end of a handrail (Mobility Research Centre/Supplied)
A truncated dome marking the end of a handrail (Mobility Research Centre/Supplied)

It's no mistake, either, that on Auckland buses and trains you'll find a lot of features coloured highlighter-yellow. The brightly-coloured  rails and handles are more visible for those with low vision. And contrasting with the yellow is the bright red stop button.

Yellow handles and poles on an Auckland bus stand out against the colour scheme.
Bright yellow handles stand out for those with low vision (Anna Bracewell-Worrall/Newshub)

Tactile paving - the yellow stripes and dots you will have noticed at train stations and traffic lights - was invented by Seiichi Miyake and was introduced in Okayama, Japan in 1967.

Thirty years later, after lobbying from blind advocacy groups, NZTA introduced guidelines in 1997. Since then, they've become a feature of Auckland city, and they are spreading across New Zealand.

More people than you realise are using them - 11 percent of people over the age of 65 experience vision impairment, and two percent of adults aged 15 to 44, according to the 2013 Disability Survey.

Before tactile pavers, Chris fell off a train platform twice

When Chris Orr makes his way through the city to get to work by train and by foot, he uses the tactile pavers all the time, he says.

Completely blind, Mr Orr uses a dog to help him find his way, but he couples the dog with use of the pavers so that he can be sure where he is.

Chris Orr with his dog (Supplied)
Chris Orr with his dog (Supplied)

Before there were tactile pavers, Mr Orr says there was nothing at the edge of the train platform. He fell off twice. Another time, he walked straight into the middle of the road.

"The first time the dog was going around some kids with their bags and the edge was quite greasy and I just slipped off the edge of the platform. It was that quick."

"Before we had tactiles, I remember when they were starting to introduce flush crossings - before that we had curbs - and I remember walking along with a cane, and it was windy, and the next thing I was out three or four metres into the road without realising it."

Now, he’ll square his feet against the tiles to make sure he's facing the right direction before crossing a road, and he'll use them as confirmation that he's on the right track when he travels into work by train every day.

“When I'm walking toward the train, I use [them] so I know I'm getting close to the edge of the platform.

If you are using a cane, unless you know where "straight" is, you can easily end up walking off on an angle into traffic, Mr Orr said.

“I use them at pedestrian crossings if my dog can't get close enough to the pole, because of people being there. I will use my feet to make sure I'm square when I'm going across the crossing."

"It's a warning. It really does help", he says.

The dots: a warning

The tiles with dots on them are used to warn those with trouble seeing that there is danger ahead.

A person with a cane stands on yellow tactile dots in front of a road crossing.
Tactile dots warn of the road crossing. In this picture. They are perpendicular to the road so they can be used to align the feet. (Supplied/Blind Foundation)

"The traveller who is blind or has low vision is alerted to stop and determine what the hazard is", Carina Duke, a practice adviser at the Blind Foundation who helps teach those with low vision how to travel safely, told Newshub.

That hazard might be a road, stairs, escalators, railway platforms or low-hanging items overhead.

The lines: this way, please

People with vision problems can use directional striped tiles on the footpath to make sure they are heading in the right direction.

Tactile lines at Mt Eden train station lead the way to the platform. (Anna Bracewell-Worrall/Newshub)
Tactile lines at Mt Eden train station lead the way to the platform. (Anna Bracewell-Worrall/Newshub)

They let those with low vision know they are following a safe path, and can be used to help people find their way to entrances of major buildings, bus stops or the all-important tag-on Hop card pole at train stations.

Yellow tiles with warning dots may break up continuous stripes to indicate something a traveller may need to stop for. At Mount Eden train station, the traveller moves along the stripe and reaches the dots when they have arrived at the Hop Card tag-on station. Once tagged-on, the stripes continue to lead the way to either the train platform or the exit.

The bad years - stainless steel

Not all councils like installing brightly-coloured pavings. Around the country and the world, subtler colours have at times been preferred, in order to blend in with the surrounding landscape.

There was a particularly bad patch when stainless steel domes were introduced in Auckland. Mr Orr says they were a slippery mistake.   

Yellow is much preferred because of the number of people who have low vision and use the bright colours as an important cue.

The raised surface of tactile paving can be difficult for people with arthritis or limited mobility. On top of that, the stainless steel was slippery.

Blind Foundation travel advisor Ms Duke says if people slip on the newer slip-resistant tiles, they should let authorities know.

As for those who stub their toes, "Many of the people who trip who have phoned me... have good vision and were not paying full attention to the footpath at the time. After they understand the importance of the tiles they have been positive," she said.

Tactile paving is good, but there's not enough of it

Mr Orr says the unfortunate thing about NZTA's tactical paving standard is "it is only a guideline."

Councils can choose whether to follow the standard, and while Auckland Transport has adopted it as a guideline and its use is spreading around the country, Mr Orr says it's not fast enough.

The Blind Foundation agrees - public spaces are full of dangers for the blind and those with low vision, and we could do more to help them safely find their way.

"There are still a number of places in the environment where there are hazards to people who are blind or have low vision, or where there is insufficient information to locate the accessible route or destination. This includes road crossings, public buildings and public spaces," Ms Duke says.