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How Seiichi Miyake’s tactile blocks changed cities

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Miyake made cities more accessible and easier to navigate

A busy indoor area with bright yellow Tenji blocks that help the visually impaired navigate cities safely.
Seiichi Miyake was a Japanese inventor who developed the “braille blocks” found in cities around the world.

Many in the U.S. might be unfamiliar with the honoree of today’s Google Doodle, Japanese inventor Seiichi Miyake. But whether you live in San Francisco or New York, Miyake has shaped the streets that we walk on.

That’s because Miyake invented the tactile squares installed near the edge of subway platforms and street crosswalks. Originally called Tenji blocks and sometimes referred to as braille blocks, the bright yellow tiles have bumps that help visually impaired people navigate potentially dangerous public spaces.

The change in surface can be sensed with a walking cane or through footwear, letting users know they are close to train platforms or traffic. Miyake designed the blocks with two types of patterns—bumps and bars. While the bumps signal caution or for people to stop, the raised lines provide directional cues for pedestrians to travel safely.

Miyake was inspired to design the system after a friend’s vision became impaired in 1965, and the first blocks were installed in the Japanese city of Okayama on March 18, 1967, next to a school for the blind. By the late 1970s, the blocks were in almost all of Japan’s railway platforms before eventually spreading abroad.

Miyake died in 1982, but his invention continues to improve accessibility and mobility for the visually impaired in cities around the world. Today, a number of different patterns have been developed for the blocks, all with directional cues that make it easier for people to navigate urban spaces independently.