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Materials of footways and footpaths

One of a series of street environment design guides.

Description of the element

photograph of two men having a conversation from a footpath

This design guide provides information on the most suitable materials for pavement footways taking account of older people’s experiences of using footways in their everyday activities.


General principles of footway surface are that they should be firm and remain firm during use; the surface should not move unpredictably when the footway is in use; the surface should not be slippery either in dry and wet conditions; paving flags should be laid with firm joints; there should be very little or no loose material on the surface; and new cobbled surfaces are unlikely to be appropriate. (DfT 2002, Countryside for All 2005). The Department for Transport Manual for Streets (2007) suggests that footway materials should be easy to maintain; safe for purpose; durable; sustainable, and appropriate to the local character.

What older people tell us they prefer and why

We chose 4 contrasting types of footway material and asked participants their preference as a walking material. They were allowed to select none or up to all 4 types.

Bar chart 1 Participants preference for footway material

Bar chart 1 Participants preference for footway material

Tarmac is the preferred walking material for reasons of smoothness, safety and physical flex. The only problems identified by participants were potential for the surface to be slippery in winter if icy (lack of grip compared to gravel for example) and it can be uneven if it is dug up and not re-laid properly. Typical comments are:

“The easiest for riding a scooter”
“Because it’s even, it’s nice to be able to look around you instead of having to look where to put your foot”
“You can’t slip or trip on tarmac”
“It’s safe but not pretty”
“Tarmac has more give in it [flex] than slabs, which is good for my bad foot”

Paving slabs are viewed as being aesthetically pleasing and possibly a good walking surface if they are properly laid. However, participants experience would suggest that maintenance is a critical issue since 66.5% of participants did not select this material, the main reason being personal safety. Typical comments are:

“Paved pavement is more interesting to walk on than tarmac, but slabs can easily become wobbly and thus dangerous for older people”
“Paving slabs look nicer, but they get uneven and you have to look down”
“I feel vulnerable on uneven slabs because I trip easily”
“If the paving surface is uneven, the scooter vibrates and that causes a huge pain in my neck”
“They can be a dangerous menace”

Gravel was not selected by 81.5% of participants. Whilst they felt it possibly had its place in open areas or nature places, it was described as being a very difficult surface to use particularly with mobility aids, and as an unsafe material because of risk of falling. Typical comments are:

“I have trouble with gravel especially the very fine stuff because my crutches slip on it”
“Gravel is impossible with my walker”
“It’s a horrible surface to fall on”
“If it’s loose it makes you feel unsteady”
“It’s alright if properly maintained”

Cobbles were seen as being aesthetically pleasing, but inherently difficult to walk on with one participant reminding us that they were designed to take steel rim cart wheels and not pedestrians! Typical comments are:

“Cobbles are nice to look at in their place”
“They look lovely, but they are a hazard”
“They are too bumpy for my scooter”
“They are awful for wheelchair users”
“They are difficult to walk on, you have to pick up your feet”

Findings from the physical audit survey

Typically our participant’s street is made of tarmac (84%) or similar smooth material. Paving slabs are used on 14% of streets, with cobbles and gravel each on 1% of streets. At the neighbourhood scale, this changes significantly with 48% of footways being made from non smooth materials such as paving slabs or similar, or a combination of smooth / non smooth materials.

Bar chart 2 Footway materials in a participant’s street

Bar chart 2 Footway materials in a participant’s street

In terms of the general condition of the footway in a participant’s street, we found that 28% of footways could be determined as poor or dangerous because of pot holes, broken flags, uneven surfaces and broken kerbs for example. Additionally, if the footway was surfaced with paving slabs, it was twice as likely to be in a poor state of repair compared to tarmac. Where poor tarmac paving was identified, this was typically because the adjoining edging kerb of concrete or similar was in a state of disrepair, rather than the tarmac surface.

At the neighbourhood scale, 76.5% of neighbourhoods had poorly maintained paving and 48% of neighbourhoods had some areas of non smooth paving material.

This would suggest that pedestrian safety is being compromised by the quality of paving material particularly where the material is paving slabs.


Most footways in neighbourhoods are designed and laid in accordance with the general principles of being firm and not slippery thus creating a safe surface upon which to travel as a pedestrian. However, there is clearly a difference between the expectations of designers and engineers in providing a surface which is easily navigable for everyone versus the experience of our participants in using footways in their neighbourhood environment. In selecting a footway material, it is recommended that:

  • Wherever possible materials are selected which require minimal maintenance such that the inherent design features of firmness and safety are evident within the footway for as long as possible;
  • The use of assistive devices and mobility aids such as walking sticks, outdoor walkers, wheelchairs and scooters, and the ease with which these aids interact with a surface material is included within material selection criteria;
  • Consideration is given to the need for a pedestrian - particularly an older person, to feel confident in using a footway, and although location and width of the footway are important, so too is the material and mitigating the fear of falling.

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.

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/stellent/groups/dft_roads/documents/page/dft_roads_506894.pdf 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

DfT (2007) Manual for Streets, London, Thomas Telford Publishing http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/sustainable/manforstreets/

English Heritage (2005). Streets for All. London. English Heritage

Fieldfare Trust (2005). The Countryside for All Good Practice Guide. Sheffield. BT Countryside for All / The Fieldfare Trust.
CD available from www.fieldfare.org.uk/cd-gpg2005.htm

Highways Agency (2005). Design Manual for Roads and Bridges. London. TheStationery Office.

The Idiots Guide to Highways Maintenance
Resources website provided by the University of Durham, UK.


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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