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Changes in level of footways and footpaths

One of a series of street environment design guides

Description of the element

Provision of both: ramp and steps and appropriate provision of handrails

This design guide provides information on the preferences of older people in using flat and sloping footways, and in using ramps and steps.

Context and existing guidance

Walking outside is extremely important for older people to remain mobile and independent for longer. However, older people have different walking distance and speed abilities and for some of them with limited functions and mobility difficulties, walking may only be possible with the help of walking aids. In all cases, the change in level on footways and footpaths becomes an important factor that influences older people’s ability to walk which in turn affects the quality of their walking experience and interaction with the external environment.

Burton and Mitchell (2006), attempts to explain how accessibility affects older users of the outdoor environment while walking along unimpeded:

Any level change can create barriers for people who are frail, have an unsteady gait of a visual impairment. People who find it difficult to lift their feet, such as those with arthritis, and people with visual impairments who struggle to see steps, find ramps easier to use. Other people, such as those with unsteady balance, tend to fid steps easier and safer than ramps, including a participant with dementia who said that “ramps, especially zigzags, are very difficult to come down. They are tiring and unbalancing. Going down is harder than going up”. However, both steps and ramps can be challenging for people with mobility problems of low stamina. (Burton and Mitchell, 2006).

The importance of the use of handrails for the ‘varying needs of users’ is explained with details by Sawyer and Bright in The Access Manual:

People with impaired vision often rely heavily on handrails to orientate themselves on staircases, to determine when they have reached the top or bottom of a flight of stairs or steps or in establishing a change of direction. All people will need a handrail that is easy to grip if they trip or fall on the stairs. Therefore, it is important that a handrail is visible, reachable, is strong enough to provide physical support if needed and offers good tactile information about the stair to the user, both when ascending and descending the stairs (Sawyer and Bright, 2007).

Inclusive Mobility (2002) advises

Flat footways and footpaths: In order to provide good drainage, the provision of crossfalls on footways may be necessary. It is recommended a 2.5% (1 in 40) crossfall as a maximum acceptable standard, but crossfalls in the range 1 to 2% are preferred.
Slopes: 5% (1 in 20) is preferred. The absolute maximum gradient is 8% (1 in 12).

Ramps: should be provided as an alternative access to steps for people with mobility aids or people with walking difficulties. The preferred gradient for a ramp is 5% (1 in 20) and the absolute maximum gradient is 8% (1 in 12).

British Standard 8300 recommends frequent landings on longer ramps and establishes the limits for the lowest practical gradients in ramps. In addition it gives information about the dimensions for widths (minimum 1200mm, ideally 1800mm), the position of handrails and the preferred surface materials.

Steps: Older people with walking difficulties or health problems may struggle with long flights of steps, therefore the maximum number of risers (steps) in a single flight should be 12 with resting places between successive flights. The minimum number of steps to be provided in a flight should be 3. All steps should have the same dimensions and should be surfaced with a slip resistant material.

According to Inclusive Mobility (2002), most people can manage a riser (step) height of 100 mm minimum and a maximum riser height of 170mm, the ideal riser height being 150mm. The ‘goings’ (step length) should be 300mm deep and no less than 200mm and the nose (edge) of the step should have a rounded radius of 6mm avoiding any overhanging that may catch a foot and cause a person to trip. In addition, step noses in a contrasting color with a depth of 55mm need to be provided across the full width on both the tread and riser to help visually impaired people. Also, appropriate hazard warning surfaces should be provided at the top and bottom of each flight of the stairs.

Handrails should be provided on both sides of the stair and a clear width of 1200mm between the handrails it is preferred.

What older people tell us they prefer and why

Footway gradient

Whilst 35% of our participants had no preference for the gradient of the footway, 65% of participants preferred a flat footway, and on further discussion with participants this percentage increased to 73%.

A flat and wide footway with good provision of seating and planters

Photo of a flat and wide footway

Typical comments from our participants who preferred a flat footway are:

“A flatter footway is easier to walk on”

“I would have difficulties walking on a slope”

“This is easier for older people”

“I definitely prefer flat ones”

“Problems with my knees make it difficult for me to walk up and down”

“Its harder to walk up on a slope”

A sloping footway with handrail provision in one side only.

Photo of a sloping footway with handrailing

Typical comments from our participants who felt confident using a sloping footway are:

“Its no problem to scooter up and down a slope”

“As one gets older, one notices the gradient much more than one used to but I can still walk up slopes even if slowly, I always use a handrail if there is one”

“A handrail would probably help as would a seat half way up”

Ramps and steps

We asked participants about their preferences for using ramps and / or steps. 82.5% of participants find a ramp with a handrail helpful, 40.0% of participants also find steps with a handrail helpful. Handrails in general were considered helpful by 88.5% of participants.

Provision of both: ramp and steps

Typical comments about ramps are:

“It is much easier to walk up a ramp than steps - less pressure on your joints”

“It’s easier to walk up a ramp than steps. Steps are difficult to watch with bad eyesight”

“I always use the ramp as it’s easier, although steep ones are awkward”

“Sometimes ramps are so steep you feel you are going to fall”

“It’s easier to walk up a gradual incline than haul myself up step by step”

“Ramps are for the disabled and I don’t consider myself disabled”

Typical comments about steps are:

“Walking on steps is a good piece of exercise. I don’t have any problems with walking up and down steps”

“I see steps and cringe”

“Because of my meniere’s disease steps sometimes seem to move, they must have a very definite line on the edge”

Findings from the physical audit survey

Most of our participants (83.5%) live in a street which is either flat or gently sloping. Only 1% of participants live in a street with steps.

Bar Chart 1. Footway level changes in a participant’s street

Bar chart 1. Footway level changes in a participant’s street


Whilst most footways were originally designed to provide minimum requirements, the subsequent poor positioning of permanent features has meant a significant reduction in the effective width of the footway. If the footway is sloping or steep it can be a further hazard for older people. It is recommended that:

  • A choice of both steps and a ramp are provided where possible, and that the design of these complies with regulation and current best practice;
  • Handrails are provided;
  • All changes in level are easily distinguishable through the clever use of contrasting surface materials and the use of colour.

Case Study

Handrail - grab rails along stairways and ramps.
Technical Report 4, Older People: the Environment and Injuries, Technical report to NCAOP-HSE-DOHC by Sub-Group on Environment and Injuries

The environment is perceived to play a significant role in many falls experienced by older people (Todd et al 2007). The World Health Organisation (WHO 2007) has highlighted that falls can result from environmental hazards and Todd et al (2007) promote a broad environmental definition encompassing the community in which the older person lives and the environmental challenges they face. Using this interpretation, environment includes buildings, places and spaces: it is the personal place we call home (house / residential / nursing home etc); the places we visit (shops, post offices, health care facilities, parks etc), and the connecting spaces between these places (bus-stops, footpaths and road crossings etc).

Safety - preventative devices

Good use of colour contrast on handrails and strips on the step noses

Safety or preventive devices (covered under Part K of the UK Building Regulations) such as handrail / grab rails along stairways and ramps are important devices for aiding safe passage for users of a building, but are particularly important for older users who may fatigue quickly because of muscle weakness.

A study examining muscle strength in community-living older person males and females between 70 and 75 years, found that 50% of females and 15% of males were unable to mount a 30cm step without holding on to a handrail, and 80% of females and half of the men had limitation of their shoulder movement such that they could not comfortably wash their hair (Kenny, 2005, evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee).

Evidence on stair usage by different groups is limited, but age has been identified as a factor that influences the likelihood of a stairway fall, with the elderly particularly prone to falling (Scott, 2005). In addition, when older people have the misfortune to fall on stairs their injuries tend to be serious and often involve fractures (Roger et al. 2001).

Environmental hazards identified in investigations into stair falls involving adults (of all ages) identify such factors as the poor condition of stair surfaces, objects on stairs, risers too high or too low, narrow goings, absent or poorly designed hand rails and poor lighting (Roger et al. 2001).

Some studies have support the effectiveness of interventions Cumming et al. (1999). For example, key design features, which can improve the stairway environment and reduce the risk of falls, include well-designed stairs/steps, provision of grab rails/hand rails for stability and guidance, colour-contrasting anti-slip nosings and adequate lighting.

This was demonstrated in the findings from a qualitative study of older people’s views on stairs carried out by Roger et al. (2001) in which older people expressed preferences for steps that are large enough to accommodate a full foot; a dislike of stairs that are steep or stairs with unequal step heights throughout the staircase; and a dislike of open stairs because they induce a sense of insecurity as a result of being able to see through to the floor below. In addition, landings were identified as beneficial, allowing rests and, in the event of a fall, ensuring a shorter distance to fall than a straight flight of stairs.

Where to find further information

BSI, BS8300:2001. Design of buildings and their approaches to meet the needs of disabled people - Code of Practice. London. British Standards Institute.

Burton E. and Mitchell L. 2006. Inclusive Urban Design: Streets for life. Oxford: Architectural Press.

DfT (2002), Inclusive Mobility: a guide to best practice on access to pedestrian and transport infrastructure. London. Department for Transport. Available online at http://www.dft.gov.uk/transportforyou/access/peti/inclusivemobility or free from Enquiry Services, DfT, Ashdown House, 123 Victoria St, London SW1E 6DE. Tel: 020 7944 8300, Fax 0207 944 6589, Email: publications@communities.gsi.gov.uk

Sawyer A., Bright K., (2007). The Access Manual: Auditing and Managing Inclusive Built Environments. Blackwell publishing, Oxford.

Case study available on line at http://www.hse.ie/eng/Publications/Older_People_and_Nursing_Homes/Older_People_


This Design Guide is first printed in 2007 and is protected by Copyright Notice © Rita Newton and Marcus Ormerod, I’DGO Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors.

Corresponding author of this Design Guide:

Rita Newton, SURFACE Inclusive Design Research Centre, The University of Salford, Maxwell Building, The Crescent, Salford, M5 4WT, UK. Email:r.newton@salford.ac.uk

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