Meet Christchurch's traffic puppet master

PUPPET-MASTER: Chris Keith-Gillon keeps a sharp eye on Barbadoes St.
PUPPET-MASTER: Chris Keith-Gillon keeps a sharp eye on Barbadoes St.

Chris Keith-Gillon's face is inches away from his three computer screens.

A picture of intense concentration, he mutters "come on, move".

He is talking to Northern Motorway traffic sitting on the Chaneys off-ramp, just past the old Waimakariri Bridge, which he is watching via four camera feeds.

It is 7.15am. Traffic is building and Keith-Gillon is the puppet master.

He can "intervene" at the traffic signals with a flick of his fingers and has had to every week day morning since February.

Without taking his eyes off the screens he asks Environment Canterbury public transport operator Lance Hammond "how far away is your bus?"

It's on the old Waimakariri Bridge.

But Keith-Gillon can't wait any longer. Three kilometres of frustrated commuters is backing all the way to the Ohoka on-ramp because of the queue for Chaneys.

"Sorry Lance it's gonna be a three-minute delay," he says as he flicks the traffic signals - his first "intervention" for the morning - which gives the off ramp three minutes of a green traffic signal.

The Christchurch Transport Operations Centre on Hereford St has scene from an American spy movie. a wall covered with eight monitors. Each shows a multitude of traffic cameras plus constantly moving graphs and colours.

The centre was launched last July. It is a partnership between Christchurch City Council, NZ Transport Agency and Environment Canterbury, built on cooperation developed in the aftermath of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.

One of its roles is to provide users of the city's network of local roads and state highways with up-to-date information about traffic, considered vital given the widespread roadworks under way in the city since the quakes.

Manager Ryan Cooney stands in front of the screens, arms folded, keeping an eye on developments.

Cooney, eyeing the logjam at Chaneys, says traffic is a delicate balance.

Once they intervene they must ensure traffic doesn't get out of control and back up to the Tram Rd off ramp and into Kaiapoi.

The bus is their way to measure how long people are sitting in the queue. Hammond says four minutes now.

Cooney spots two cars leaving the queue and trying the Kaiapoi off-ramp.

"It's our suspicion that when they do this and try to come back on at Tram Rd that they actually create more congestion," he says.

That's his job - to find little ways of making a big dent in traffic congestion. An extension of a turning lane, like at the corner of Matipo st and Blenheim Rd, will free up the straight-through lane.

It is 7.50am and Keith-Gillon has spotted two problems.

Traffic is backed up at Chaneys again and Blenheim Rd has stopped moving.

"[Rangiora] bus has taken 15 minutes from the [Waimakariri] bridge," calls Hammond.

Keith-Gillon lets out a low whistle and hits the button to change the traffic signals.

Meanwhile, Jeff Owen and Cooney try to figure out why traffic has backed up on Blenheim Rd - the lights are green and nobody is moving.

Hammond says it has taken 22 minutes for a bus to get from Matipo St to Annex Rd via Blenheim Rd - a distance of about 1.5k.

He asks bus drivers in the queue to see why.

A truck is at the end of a right-turning lane but its rear end is sticking into a straight-through lane.

Three minutes later traffic is flowing. The post-earthquake network is that sensitive.

The Press