Sunday, June 4, 2023

The NZTA's worse than useless road signs

Not that I’m picking on the NZTA 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, NZTA?) – 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 NZTA 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 the NZTA 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, the NZTA 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. The NZTA 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 NZTA 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 the NZTA'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 the NZTA 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 the NZTA 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.



Clive Thorp said...

Spot on Karl

I found several instances of this problem in the Waikato on a trip to Thames a few years ago.
On the way up I got stuck in Hamilton because a sign to Cambridge had no early warning and no general 'Coromandel' help, yet this road that I therefore missed was the one I should have been on and was intended indeed for my trip.
On the way back from Paeroa I was confounded by what you experienced - no help with a bigger town further on and I was truly lost. No locals out there to ask either. A sign to Taupo was not shown on the most direct route from the Coromandel until I was almost only 50kms from it.
It's not good enough for them to assume we all use our GPS on phones. WK as the roading authority should be indicating on road signs as though we were no locals: we are both here talking about major roads designed for through and longer distance traffic.
They are not doing a sensible job at all. I have no idea why, but you should at least get a response from someone there about why there are so many lapses of the sort you describe.

Peter said...

Another example of signage that doesn’t work is the interchange of SH 2 and 58 in the Hutt Valley. For northbound motorists intending to make a left turn onto SH58 the road sign says Porirua and Pauatahanui. I can well understand why Porirua is on the sign but Pauatahanui is just a small community and people who need to go there will already know where it is. The sign should instead be saying Palmerston North for the many drivers who will be seeking to head in that direction.

But “Palmerston North” would be an English name right? I wonder if I am being too paranoid here but given the recent proposals for bilingual street signs, I am not so sure.

Karl du Fresne said...

Glad you mentioned the Pauatahanui example. I'd noticed that too.

Doug Longmire said...

On a straightforward drive from Wellington to Palmerston North, there is a similar display of road signs along the journey that appear to change the destination randomly.

Re: The "bilingual" road signs. Despite claims to the contrary, this will be very costly, especially with the long list of "consultants" that will inevitably cash in on this.
This is the same Wacka organization that last year spent $23,000,000 on TV adverts, instead of potholes and road maintenance !!

pdm said...

Maybe things would improve if everyone started calling the roading people by their proper name.

New Zealand Transport Agency.

I have seen a few Waka in my 77 years but never one with wheels so they will not be driving on the roads anytime - ever.

Me said...

Try the ridiculous destination signs on the brand new SH south of Christchurch. There are two exits to the airport. One is signed but not the other. It is signed Picton. You have to go past the airport to get to Picton. And why Picton when Kaikoura and Amberley are closer and on the way? The signage would be designed by consultants who follow strict arcane rules and nobody in NZTA is competent to see the problem. NZTA has a problem where the project managers arent sure if they are there to accept output of the conultants or challenge it to make sure it is robust. But NZTA recently started a course for internal project managers and not one of the atendees was an Engineer so they cannot provide any guidance or challenge to improve the project. They add no value.

Michael S said...

I recall being in moderate traffic in Christchurch not knowing whether I needed to turn left or right at the upcoming intersection. I couldn't see the street sign at the intersection ahead because the sign was at knee/hip height and I had cars in front of me blocking the view. The sign was unseen until I was at the intersection. By then it was too late to change lanes. Knee/hip height signage was a common scenario unfortunately.

Eamon Sloan said...

Like most people I have been caught out by road signage traps.

A few random comments. Pauatahanui has for year on year mostly been referred to by locals as Patanui (Part a nooey). I have suggested before today that the problem is not so much the name but the spelling.

When Waka Kotahi (Canoe Number One) gets around to incorporating (enforcing maybe) Maori language in road signage will English language place names be accompanied by a Maori gobbledegook name?

There is to be a new school sign – Kura/School. Will Maori language signage encourage improved school attendance by Maori children? On a serious note, some reporting says that for some Maori children regular school attendance is dropping away. That should worry all of us.

Huskynut said...

While I'm a firm proponent of Hanlon's razor, when the evidence all lands on one side of the scale, the question must arise - "is it intentional?".
Less travel presumably means less emissions.. is it really impossible that many of the Wakayama kotahi staff have personal agendas which don't include simple and frictionless travel?

Huskynut said...

Or, restated: once the drive for quality and intolerance for dreck on the part of senior management has dropped below a certain threshold (as it observable has), is there any meaningful difference between the staff doing a lazy, half-ass job and actively sabotaging the country's future, on the taxpayer's dime?
I very much suspect not.

Russell Parkinson said...

I believe this problem stems from WWII when confusing signs were part of our defense system. After all if we are confused and get lost then the enemy is even more likely to do so.

Unfortunately the memo that the war is over was missed at NZTA, or Transit NZ or whatever it was called in 1945, so this requirement is still on the procedures checklist today.

I suspect that a number of locals were also instructed to rush out and turn the signposts upon news of an invasion. Most of these are dead of course but in rural areas its highly likely their families are carry on on the job and probably have some secret society just waiting for the news.

Karl du Fresne said...

You're quite right that the name Waka Kotahi has no official standing. You may note I've now deleted all reference to it and replaced it with NZTA, purely as a bloody-minded protest against activist bureaucrats taking it upon themselves to rebrand a major public organisation despite having no mandate to do so.
As far as I can ascertain, the name Waka Kotahi is nowhere mentioned in the legislation relating to the NZTA. The decision to change the name wasn't even made by the NZTA board. It was initiated by the agency's interim chief executive and endorsed by the "executive leadership team":

Anonymous said...

The signage confusion you outline is symptomatic of the terminal idiocy back at NZTA HQ.

"Our vision is for an Aotearoa New Zealand where no one is killed or seriously injured in road crashes. The release of He Pūrongo Whakahaumaru Huarahi Mō Ngā Iwi Māori (Māori Road Safety Outcomes Report) is a proud step towards achieving this vision."

The conehead who authorized 'the team' to come up with this lunacy should be flogged. There's potholes in highways that would break a Landcruiser axle but the team is busy with this proud step.
Maybe not including stole vehicles damaged in ramraids would reduce the Maori vehicle accident statistics.

pdm said...

Point of interest re the importance of Te Akau to the racing industry Karl.

I have never been there but assume it is the home of the Ellis Family Te Akau Stud and agistment facility which produces many of New Zealand's top gallopers year on year.

The Ellis family do a lot of race horse syndication and there could well be endless trails of syndicate members looking to visit to see and touch the few hairs on the mane or tail of the thoroughbred they have invested in.

Hence a reason for the prominence of the name on the road sign.

Karl du Fresne said...

Interesting thought, Donald. I've checked and it seems Te Akau is indeed the location of the eponymous stud (though not of the Te Akau Stables, which are at Matamata). Whether that explains the name's prominence on the sign at Waingaro is something only NZTA can answer.

Donald McDonald said...

When I first arrived in New Zealand I noticed that there were no "City Centre" signs.
Invariably the had a sign with a street name known to no one but the locals.