Once again, my small world got in the way of someone elses bigger world. AKA why do we have tactile pavement?

Author: Jakob Rosin

This is a response I wrote to an article published in Tartu Postimees, a local division of Estonias national daily newspaper. The original response, in Estonian is posted here. Jakob Rosin: jälle jäi mu väike maailm kellegi suurele maailmale jalgu. Ehk täpilistest teedest.

Jakob stands with a white cane in his hand at a city intersection, where tactile pavement can be seen on the ground in front of him.

Once I happened to overhear a conversation at a bus stop. “Damn, these buses blabber all the time, it gets on my nerves, they don’t let me sleep at night,” one gentleman began to curse. Someone else agreed with him, but he criticized the traffic lights that make noise, they give you a headache. A boy no older than ten, next to them, perhaps their grandson, knew enough to say that buses talk so that blind people know which line number has just arrived and at which stop to get off, and that the traffic lights tick differently when the light is green.

Well… In a society where there are people with different needs, it might indeed be difficult to find solutions that will please absolutely everyone. As a person who has been blind since birth, for example, cyclists and scooters speeding on sidewalks bother me a lot. The latter have even sent a lot of fellow blind people to the Emergency Room.

On the opinion page of Tartu Postimees, a Local division of Estonias major daily newspaper, you can read Valdar Parve’s thoughts on “unnecessarily installed concrete blocks” (TPM, 23.8). The article, which criticizes the curbs at pedestrian crossings, also mentions the tactile pavement installed at the crosswalks as a well-intentioned solution that saves the pedestrians from slipping on the slope, but endangers the health of those traveling with wheelchairs, bicycles, strollers, suitcases or walkers.

This complaint startled many in the local visually impaired community, who saw the mentioned opinion piece as a criticism of a vital accessibility feature of urban environments.

So, it might be useful to explain why the tactile pavement, which keeps breaking legs, is still being laid on the roads. The urban environment is one of the most dangerous environments for a visually impaired person, and one of the worst environments to navigate independently. In constantly changing traffic conditions, it is very difficult to understand where I am at the moment and whether the situation is safe for me.

For example, how does a sighted person recognise that they have accidentally stepped from the sidewalk onto the road? First, they see where the cars are passing. Secondly, a line has been drawn to separate the sidewalk and roadway. Thirdly, there are several types of road signs that indicate where a pedestrian can cross the road.

Do you notice the problem? All these indicators are purely visual. If you close your eyes, you can step into the road without noticing the difference, and in the worst case, the story will end here.

This is why tactile pavement is created. It is installed, for example, at the beginning and end of a pedestrian crossing. It can also be found at the edge of railway platforms, at the ends of steps and dropoffs, at the beginning and end of longer ramps, at public transport stops, even at the entrances of buildings. In short, anywhere where a fast-moving pedestrian should stop and assess the danger.

When a visually impaired person traveling with a white cane or a guide dog encouters tactile pavement, they can easily recognise that they have reached, say, a road crossing and will not accidentally step into the road.

In many places, in fact, there is also a real curb or step, where the sidewalk is higher than the roadway. This is very helpful for a person with visual impairments, but a person in a wheelchair or with a walker may not be able to climb a step that is too high on their own.

In the final report of the Road Infrastructure Accessibility Working Group of the Estonias Chancellery’s accessibility Task Force, published a few years ago, attention was drawn to the worrying trend in road construction, where the roadway and the sidewalk are located on the same level, in order to provide more comfortable movement for people with light mobility devices such as scooters or bicycles. In such a situation, the only way to warn the visually impaired road user is by using the same tactile street stones. Therefore, one way or another, a very smooth road is also a health hazard for the pedestrian.

Unfortunately, the network of streets and roads in Estonia is still one that generally takes into account only two types of road users: people sitting in cars and people walking on the sidewalk. Push-bikers and cyclists, however, have to wait for roads specially designed for them in many places. Until then, we all have to consider each other and choose the right driving style, so that a centimeter rise on the road surface meant to help other people does not send us into a crash.
If you don’t know how to do this… there are plenty of examples from other countries where scooters are no longer allowed to ride on the pavement.

Although the Estonian Blind Union has worked closely with people with visual and mobility impairments, road builders and urban planners to find the most suitable type of tactile pavement for everyone, scooters, whose small wheels are more disturbed by these tactile stones than bicycles, have recently become more and more relevant. For some reason, however, it has not occurred to the riders of these scooters to stop and slowly cross the road in their eternal rush. This would be much safer for everyone – both those on wheels and those on foot.

I am glad that the city of Tartu is actively installing tactile pavement. It is more and more obvious, that the grumbles of people who complain about traffic lights and buses that make noise are no longer heard. Citizens who love to grumble should, perhaps take care not to trample on someone’s small world while in such a big rush to create their big world.