Tales told by Tactiles

GoBike committee member, Brenda, has turned her attention to the theory and practice of tactiles; you might remember that, just over a year ago, she gave us the conundrums of contraflow cycling? Now you can read, and learn, about tactiles.

Tactiles – those patterned square slabs set into pavements and paths – are there to give messages to people with visual impairments. Different patterns, different messages. Some of them carry messages about cycle infrastructure. Glasgow is using these incorrectly so often that using them at all is a waste of money. Read on to find out how and why.

Should cycle campaigners care about the correct use of tactiles? Yes, we should. As vulnerable road users we want streets that are safe for everyone to use, whether cycling, walking or wheeling. We don’t want our protection from motor traffic to create unnecessary extra problems for other people. When funding for cycling infrastructure includes providing tactiles to help keep people safe around silent cycles, those tactiles had better be giving the right messages.

Yet in Glasgow the tactiles used in cycle infrastructure (old, new and still under construction) seem to be chosen by some kind of lucky dip.  It takes an amateur about 30 seconds to find the guidance for which tactiles to use where (here).  So what is it that’s stopping Glasgow getting this right?

To be clear, we’re not talking about the most commonly seen tactiles, the ones with a stud (or ‘blister’) pattern.  They show where there are (relatively) safe street crossings.  If there are problems with how those are installed they’re too subtle for us to have noticed.  The next most commonly seen tactiles are the ones with a pattern of bars. The problem is that there are two kinds.  One kind has bars with a round section (‘corduroy’ pattern) closely spaced (30mm between bars).  The other kind has flat-topped bars (‘ladder/tramline’) not quite so closely spaced (70mm between bars).  The correct use of each is unambiguously distinct:

  • the ladder/tramline kind  advises visually impaired people which side of a segregated shared cycle/footpath is the side for walking
  • the corduroy kind advises visually impaired people of a hazard immediately ahead (“You’re about to fall down a flight of steps”).

So what’s the reason for the widespread incorrect, inconsistent and misleading use of these types on segregated cycle/footpaths in Glasgow?

Sometimes Glasgow does get this right.  Here’s the correct use at the southern end of the new cycleway on Garscube Road.

These are the tactiles with flat-topped bars, with the ladder orientation on the walking side and the tramline orientation on the cycling side, as described in the guidance.

(To digress here for a moment, much as we might wish for the unnerving wheel-catching tramline orientation to be on the walking side rather than the cycling side, there are better ways of spending the limited budget for cycle infrastructure than on digging up all the existing cycle/footway tactiles and swopping them round.)

But too often the choice of tactiles on these shared paths seems just random.  Does no-one notice there are two kinds?

The picture at the top of this piece is from the cycleway round the eastern side of Festival Park, which uses the (wrong) round-topped tactiles.  Those round-topped bars on the left (footpath side) are saying to someone (who needs their message) walking into the correct, safe, footway side, “You’re walking into a hazard”.  And on the cycling side, the round-topped bars are even better at that unnerving wheel grabbing than the flat-topped bars are, so people sometimes choose to cycle over the ladder-oriented footpath side instead.

And here are the tactiles on the paths on North Canal Bank Street (left) and (for a clear look at the round tops) Old Dumbarton Road (right), both currently under construction, both giving the same misleading message.

The guidance is clear – round topped tactiles are to warn people with visual impairments of a hazard ahead (a flight of steps, a platform edge).  Using them where there is no such hazard is crying ‘Wolf’ all over our streets.  Putting them across the pedestrian side of a segregated path (the safe place to walk) destroys their credibility as a warning of a hazard.

(The only use for the round-topped corduroy tactiles in connection with cycling is to warn that a footway is joining a shared route at a T-junction.)

Glasgow’s non-compliant use of tactiles goes beyond ‘just’ (!) picking the wrong type though.  

Here’s an inventive use at a bus stop on the cycleway on Paisley Road.

These tactiles have the flat-topped bars for use on segregated shared paths —  but they’re being used to mark a crossing to a bus stop.  For someone walking from right to left (crossing to the bus stop) they’re saying “You’re entering the walking side of a shared path”, i.e. “You’re safe”, when they’re about to walk across a separate cycleway.  For someone walking along the footway (bottom to top of the picture) they’re saying “ You’re entering the cycling side of a shared foot/cycleway”, i.e. “You’re in the wrong place”, when actually they’re safely on the footway.  We think the ‘blister’ pattern tactiles should have been used here.

And so to the flagship Sauchiehall Street Avenue.  Here are the tactiles marking its termination at Charing Cross:

Again, the tactiles are the ones with the flat-topped bars associated with cycle infrastructure.  But they’ve been used only on the cycleway with none on the footway side of the shared path.  And they’re on the cycleway in the ladder orientation.  They’re used this way at every side turning and on both sides of every mini-zebra crossing.  What’s the message?  For someone whose vision is impaired who sets out walking along the cycleway the message is “You’re on the footway side of a segregated shared path”, in other words “You’re in the right place, you’re safe”.

And on the footway side there are no tactiles which would send the message that there’s a parallel cycleway, separated only by the median slightly raised strip visible in the last picture.

Keep your eyes open around Glasgow and you’ll find more examples of the incorrect, and inappropriately inventive use of these tactiles, delivering inconsistent, unreliable messages to people who already have more than enough challenges in negotiating our streets.  These messages embedded in Glasgow’s streets are so unreliable that we can only assume that no-one pays attention to them.  Certainly no-one can depend on them.  What is it that stops Glasgow from getting this right?  Is it that the wrong person has the responsibility for specifying the details of cycle infrastructure?  Is it that minimal value is placed on getting the details right when cycle infrastructure is created?  Where does the accountability lie?

If we can’t get it right (which, observably, we can’t), the money it takes to specify, purchase and install these tactiles should be spent instead on a few more feet of cycleway, or more effective assistance for people whose vision is compromised.

1. Guidance on the use of tactile paving surfaces, DETR, 1998