Have you ever found yourself waiting to cross a street and looked down and noticed that there were some knobby bumps on the ground in the part of the sidewalk where you were standing?

Those dots are there for a very good reason: They help people who are blind or have limited vision navigate their communities.

What is it?

Tactile paving—as these bumps are called in urban design circles—helps individuals who are unable to see the differences between a sidewalk and a road understand that they are approaching a roadway.

If a blind or partially sighted person is walking and feels a sudden change in the texture of the surface of the sidewalk—whether with a cane or with their feet—these individuals understand that they need to pay special attention to their surroundings.

If you have good vision, you may have seen a variety of raised surfaces as you navigate a modern city, especially on sidewalks and train platforms. Each of these textured surfaces follows national and international design specifications to send appropriate messages to those who have difficulty seeing.

Different patterns send different messages. For instance, a grid of bumps can signal that an individual is approaching a sloping curve connecting a sidewalk and a road. Other patterns of bumps send the message that an individual is approaching a train platform.

How It Works

Raised stripes across a pathway can signal that there are obstacles—perhaps stairs—ahead. Other times there are running stripes that will follow a pathway.

Another thing you may notice about these raised surfaces is that they’re usually a bright color, often red or yellow. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, “Only 18 percent of people who are visually impaired are classified as being totally blind and the majority of them can differentiate between light and dark.”

Thus many individuals with some degree of blindness may not be able to distinguish easily between a beige sidewalk and a gray roadway, but red or yellow may stand out.

When you come across these types of surfaces on your next walk, examine your surroundings and see what signals you think they might be sending to those who may not see well.

There are lots of subtle pieces of infrastructure that can help people from all walks of life better navigate their community.

Everyday Use

Have you ever heard of a pedestrian island? These are places where a pedestrian can stand, safely separated from other modes of traffic as they cross a street. In the picture below, the pedestrian island is between a bike lane and the rest of the road. You can cross the street while no cars are coming and then wait for bicycle traffic to clear before proceeding on your journey. Drivers and cyclists will generally slow down and avoid the large curbs that bookend these islands for walkers and wheelchair users, making the experience safer and more intuitive for all.

Notice the tactile pavement on this pedestrian island, too.

Speaking of bike lanes, have you ever noticed bright green paint on the road surrounding a white bicycle symbol? Usually bike lanes can be marked off with one or two solid stripes of white paint. Green bike lanes, though, alert both drivers and pedestrians to expect cyclists, especially around intersections.

If you follow this link, the image shows a big green field in front of a line of cars. This is called a bike box. Several cyclists may advance past a row of stopped cars that are queued up at a stoplight. Bikers may file into the bike box and wait for a special bicycle and pedestrian signal to change, giving them a slight head start on the cars, so the people on bikes aren’t wobbling and getting their balance as cars are racing past them. A little paint makes cycling much safer, and believe it or not, designs like this often make driving easier too.

A little bit of paint, a change in texture, or a raised curb can all make navigating a city a whole lot safer for a wide variety of constituents with different needs, abilities, and motivations. Keep your eyes peeled for other subtly cool pieces of infrastructure on your next outing.