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SocietyDecember 31, 2023

On the impossibility of turning right in Christchurch

Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

Summer reissue: Every day, thousands of Christchurch drivers are white-knuckling through uncontrolled right turns across the city. Alex Casey attempts to find out why. 

First published on April 3, 2023.

The intersection between Christchurch’s Selwyn Street and Brougham Street represents an intersection of bittersweet feelings. As you approach, you are greeted by a cheerful hand drawn sign, proudly declaring “EGGS WE HAVE” outside the corner dairy. Very emphatic, very urgent, very Yoda-at-the-farmers-market. Bask in the euphoria of “EGGS WE HAVE” while you can, because just ahead is a right hand turn, across multiple lanes of endless oncoming traffic, during rush hour, with no green arrow to help. Bravery we need, or crash we have. 

I have lived in Ōtautahi for three months, and continue to be bamboozled by the lack of green right turn arrows at busy, multi-lane intersections controlled by traffic lights throughout the city. Drivers are forced to creep out in the middle of the intersection with what feels like a big invisible ‘I’m with stupid’ sign floating next to them, and simply pray for a gap in the oncoming stream of traffic. If that gap never comes, the only opportunity they get (along with one or two tailgaters) is to turn on the orange – sometimes red – light. “Orange means go here” an Uber driver warned me just yesterday. 

After bringing up the dreaded right turn at family gatherings, social occasions, Scrabble club, pole class and scouring local blog posts and Reddit threads for supporting evidence, the consensus is clear: the missing green arrows is absolutely a weird Christchurch thing and is, as one anonymous transport engineer put it, absolutely nuts. Even people who have lived here for years describe closing their eyes, gritting their teeth and white knuckling it through the gnarliest rush hour turns, while others explain how they have simply rerouted their lives to miss the worst right turns altogether. 

All new drivers in Christchurch

For new arrivals, it is even more shocking. My former colleague Josie Adams moved to Christchurch in 2021, and distinctly remembers her first encounter with the dreaded turn. She was driving into the city using Google Maps, which instructed her to turn right at the next intersection. As she approached, she quickly realised there was no arrow to help her get across three lanes of oncoming traffic. “I sat there waiting for a chance, but the chance never came,” she laments. “I sat through two sets of orange lights and there was quite a bit of build-up behind me.” 

Nobody was beeping at her, but she distinctly recalls a feeling of being watched – and silently judged. “In Auckland, they’d be very aggressive and just yell ‘fucking move’. Here, it feels more calculated, as if they’re sitting back and saying ‘we don’t have anywhere to be, go on, fuck this up’.” As the pressure mounted, Adams says she “zoomed it” at the next available chance. “I think the tyres squeaked – you can probably still see the marks I left on the road.” These days, she adds an extra 10 minutes onto any journey around the city, just to avoid turning right at certain points. 

Stephen Judd, who has also interrogated the Christchurch right turn on his own blog, recalls the same utter confusion when he first moved to the city from Wellington in 2012. “It broke all my instincts about what safe driving looks like,” he says. “You have to enter the intersection and just camp there, which feels bad, or you actually tailgate the car in front of you, which also feels very bad.” Although it is not illegal to turn on an orange if you entered the intersection on a green, Judd says the manouvre still feels “really dangerous” and “totally wrong” over a decade later. 

According to data provided to The Spinoff by Christchurch City Council, there are 280 intersections in Christchurch that are controlled by traffic lights. Of those 280 intersections, only 140 of them – exactly half – include at least one right turn arrow. “Historically Christchurch has not had the level of traffic and congestion of other centres,” explains transport operations manager Stephen Wright. “However, with traffic growth and changes to travel patterns in the city post-earthquake some of these issues have become more evident in particular locations.”

A maybe confusing meme that I made

Over the past five years, Wright says the council has upgraded 21 intersections to provide right turn arrows, and has plans to upgrade six more in the near future. “We are continually reviewing the signal phasing at intersections throughout the network in response to public enquiries, crash risk assessment and operational issues.” A number of factors influence the installation of a right turn, he explains, including crash history, intersection geometry, number of opposing lanes, volume of traffic turning right and the surrounding speed environment. 

Transport engineer and former University of Canterbury lecturer Glen Koorey once taught a road safety course which would examine crash black spots. “The biggest ones were around the Four Avenues, and it was often those right-turn crashes where someone’s trying to turn across three or four lanes of oncoming traffic.” He says that while council is improving the turning light situation in the city, there is plenty of work still to be done. “There’s actually industry guidance that says on any road where you’ve got two or more oncoming lanes, you should have a turn arrow. We just haven’t practised that everywhere yet.” 

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. (Image: Getty)

Because of this strange Christchurch quirk, driving instructors are also having to adapt their lessons for their more nervous students. Zebedee driving instructor Graham Alexander is passionate about the green arrow and despises its absence, and the behaviour the absence encourages, across the city. “Me, personally, I love the green filter. I love it when traffic lights take the guesswork of out of intersections for people.” For rattled new drivers, he always dispenses the same advice: “Be safe, be patient, be calm, don’t let anyone bully you and do not feel pressured to do anything else other than what is safe.”

“Or, I will just tell them to pre-plan their route and just avoid the right turn altogether – often that’s quicker anyway,” he adds. 

It’s not just drivers that the dreaded right turn affects, but cyclists. “If you are trying to be a confident cyclist and act like a motorist, then you potentially have the same challenge if you’ve got a right turn with no arrow to help you get across,” says Koorey, who also runs Cycling in Christchurch. Judd puts it more plainly. “It sucks when you are on a bike,” he says. “You’re very vulnerable making this right turn at low speed, while people in cars are charging towards you.” As a result, hook turn boxes are becoming much more prevalent, providing cyclists the opportunity to safely stick to the left, in order to ultimately turn right. 

The other issue is that adding right turn lights means taking time away from someone else, says Koorey, which creates a balancing act between traffic efficiency and driver safety. “That time doesn’t magically come from nowhere. So if you’re going to give turning traffic time, then someone else is going to lose out.” Wright confirms that council is used to receiving complaints from motorists after the installation of a right turn light. “It’s an unavoidable consequence of installing a right turn phase that time will need to be taken away from other movements at the intersection, which leads to increased delays and queues.”

Ryan Gosling getting ready to turn onto Brougham Street.

The further I went down the right turn traffic light rabbit hole, the more it became clear that the traffic light situation in Christchurch is much more complicated than bunging in some extra LEDs across the city and calling it a day. “Whilst it may seem like there is minimal work required to install more arrow signal displays, it can be very costly to provide right turn phases at intersections due to issues with underground infrastructure,” Wright explains. “A lot of underground traffic signal infrastructure was damaged during the earthquakes and we are still dealing with the impacts of this.”

There’s also no guarantee that drivers will even behave better once the lights are installed. “You may conclude that, the more regulated the system is, the safer it will be,” says transport engineer Axel Downard-Wilke, who has worked extensively in traffic light management across the country. “But that is where it gets tricky, because the more inefficient the operation is, the more risk-taking there is by drivers to push it and keep turning when the lights are amber, or very dark amber, or very much red already.” Traffic engineering has a lot to do with psychology, he says, and the outcomes are never totally predictable. 

One thing is for absolute certain – the psychological thriller that is the Christchurch right turn should come with some sort of warning, at least for new drivers to the city. “I did not realise how good I had it turning right in Auckland,” reflects Adams, who regrets taking all those delicious green arrows for granted for so many years. “In every other respect, driving here is good. But turning right, as it turns out, is a huge part of your everyday life.” She suggests that Christchurch provides a pamphlet, or perhaps some signage, when people arrival at the airport. My pitch? ‘Welcome to Christchurch: eggs we have, right arrows we don’t.’

Got any more uniquely Christchurch yarns? Get in touch – alex@thespinoff.co.nz

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