Not that I’m picking on Waka Kotahi or anything (see earlier post), but does New Zealand have the world’s worst road signage?
I’ve expostulated on this subject before, to the extent that it’s threatening to become something of a personal obsession. What got me started again was our recent road trip, during which I saw some bizarre examples of irrational signage that seemed expressly designed to bamboozle travellers or send them the wrong way.
Example No. 1: on SH22, which is the back road from Raglan to Pukekohe (incidentally, a lovely route, worth taking if you’ve got the time), there’s an intersection near Waingaro Hot Springs where you can turn right toward Ngaruawahia and SH1 or left to carry on north toward Pukehoke, which is where we were going. But does the sign pointing left mention Pukekohe, Tuakau or any other recogniseable place name? No, it tells you that the road leads to a place called Te Akau – a mere dot on the map (Wikipedia describes it as a small farming settlement) that few people from outside the district would have heard of. Not recognising the name Te Akau and wanting to head north toward Tuakau, I headed down the wrong road for a couple of minutes before sensing there must be some mistake and turning back.
Here’s the thing: the only people wanting to go to Te Akau are likely to be locals, who of course already know where it is. Strangers to the area – i.e. the people who depend on signs to get them to the right place (are you listening, Waka Kotahi?) – are likely to be looking for names that mean something. Pukekohe, for example, or Tuakau.
I saw several other examples of utterly useless signs pointing to no-name places rather than to localities that travellers actually want to get to. Did you know, for example, that when you head west from Paihia, the big Waka Kotahi sign beside the road tells you you’re going to Puketona? That’s right: Puketona. Not Kerikeri or Kawakawa or Mangonui or Kaitaia or any other place that people have heard of and want to get to, but another dot on the map that appears to have been put on the sign for no better reason than that it happens to be on the intersection where the road from Paihia links up with SH1.
Oheawai in Northland is another case in point. Signs on SH12 repeatedly tell you you’re heading toward Oheawai – yet another tiny dot – but make no mention of the more substantial places people might be heading for. Like Puketona, Oheawai is at a junction. I suspect the nerdish mindset in Waka Kotahi is that junctions are important and therefore dictate what should be put on signs, regardless of whether the place names mean anything to anyone.
Example No 2: heading towards Auckland from Clarks Beach, on the southern shore of Manukau Harbour, wouldn’t you expect the signs to say just that: “Auckland”? Ha! Far too logical. Instead, the signs tell you you’re on the way to Papakura. Auckland doesn’t get a mention. Many New Zealanders have only a vague idea of where Papakura is and few strangers to the district are likely to be going there. They do, however, want to be sure they’re on the road to Auckland. But for reasons apparent only to itself, Waka Kotahi has decided that information isn’t necessary. What, I wonder, would overseas tourists make of it? Not having heard of Papakura, they would understandably worry that they must be on the wrong road.
And here’s another strange phenomenon: the case of the disappearing destination. I’ve encountered this frequently and struck it again on the northwestern motorway (SH16) out of Auckland, where the signs initially point, quite rationally, to Helensville. But then Helensville inexplicably drops off the signage and Wellsford pops up in its place. Later it’s Wellsford’s turn to vanish and Helensville is mysteriously reinstated. The result, for people navigating SH16 for the first time, is likely to be confusion, at the very least. It wouldn’t surprise me if flummoxed drivers pull off the motorway because they’re suddenly wondering whether they’re still on the right route. Consistency in signage is important.
There’s also the reverse phenomenon, where a place name is invisible until you’ve virtually arrived. Example: if you’re heading toward Raglan from the south and take the most direct route by turning off SH3 at Otorohanga, the signs tell you only that you’re on the way to Kawhia. Despite being a far bigger place (population 4000, compared with Kawhia’s few hundred), Raglan doesn’t rate a mention. It’s not till you get to a major intersection at Whatawhata, west of Hamilton, that the popular surfing and holiday town suddenly shows up on road signage. Waka Kotahi seems to assume that the only people travelling to Raglan are coming from the north and east. (I should add that as well as pointing only to Kawhia, the sign at Otorohanga is in a position where it’s very easy to miss – another regular Waka Kotahi flub.)
Anyone reading this rant might assume that I wrote it in a fit of rage after repeatedly taking wrong turns on our road trip, some of which was in unfamiliar territory. Not so. Only twice did I briefly get misled (the other time was at Herekino, in the Far North). I pride myself on knowing the country well enough, and having a sufficiently sound sense of direction, not to get bushed. But I did repeatedly curse misleading or ambiguous signs that made me pause and double-check, and I wondered time and again how much more confounding it must be for travellers with little knowledge of New Zealand geography.
Overall, I get the impression Waka Kotahi’s signage policy is determined by someone with a degree – possibly a PhD in critical signage theory – sitting at a computer in Wellington and applying a rigid theoretical approach (the emphasis on road junctions suggests this) rather than by people actually out on the road tackling the issue from a practical, common-sense standpoint – that is to say, constantly asking themselves: “What information are motorists most likely to need here?”. (I’m available to Waka Kotahi for a modest consultant’s fee. I certainly couldn’t do a worse job than whoever’s designing the signage now.)
A possible aggravating factor is that the AA appears to have withdrawn from its traditional signposting role. There was a time when every district had a resident AA agent who knew his territory intimately (I'm not being sexist - it was invariably a bloke) and whose duties included ensuring all roads were clearly signposted. But the AA these days is a very different beast and may have abandoned that useful function.
Whatever the explanation, I find it hard to believe that the designers of road signage ever put themselves in the position of the typical road user, still less consider the challenges faced by overseas travellers – of whom there are many – trying to navigate an unfamiliar country.
Perhaps the central planners assume every vehicle has Sat Nav and no one needs help, in which case Waka Kotahi might as well dispense with signage altogether. I can think of any number of places where they might as well do exactly that, given that the existing signs are often worse than useless.