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Time Out investigates: What's the deal with hook turns?

Ever wondered why there are so many hook turns in Melbourne? We asked an expert

Hook turn sign
Photograph: Creative Commons
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No phrase instils more fear in the heart of Melburnians than “turn right from the left lane” (that, or “the free tram zone ends in one stop”). Hook turns just seem so counterintuitive – veering left, waiting, and turning right when the opposite lights turn green. 

Did you know the earliest evidence of hook turns in Melbourne can be traced back to the 1930s? They were mentioned in the Victorian Road Traffic Regulations in 1939. But professor Graham Currie, director of Public Transport Research Group at Monash University, believes they could have been around even earlier than that, but no one explicitly wrote it down back then. 

Hook turns were introduced in Melbourne to facilitate tram movement. Cars don’t bank up over the tramlines to turn right, meaning other cars, bikes and trams can continue to move straight.

The hook turn traffic pattern that currently operates in Melbourne’s CBD was officially formalised in the 1950s, when traffic congestion began to increase. Melbourne isn’t the only city in the world that uses hook turns, nor is a hook turn primarily designed for cars and trams. Buses currently use hook turns at the intersection of Hoddle Street and Victoria Parade; hook turn lanes are common in the US state of Illinois; and there are intersections in Beijing where traffic has to make opposing turns from kerbside lanes. And bicycles are permitted to make hook turns all over Australia, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. But Melbourne is the only city where a hook turn facilitates tram movement.

"This is an example of something clever that we’ve always done which we should be taking credit for."

 

So what’s so great about hook turns? They make the public transport network run more smoothly. Currie and research fellow James Reynolds did a study in 2011 of hook turns in relation to tram delay and found that a hook turn saves a tram 11.25 to 15.64 seconds per intersection. That might not seem like much, but without hook turns, trams would get stuck behind cars turning right. To make up for those delays, more trams would be needed, at an estimated cost of between $15 million and $25 million.   

The study also found an additional benefit – hook turn intersections are safer than normal intersections, even when there isn’t a tram involved. It’s technically safer because of the reduced number of right turns, “which are the most dangerous form of traffic movement there is,” says Currie. But hook turns are not safer per se – rather, they are so intimidating, people would prefer to do three left turns rather than face one hook turn. Currie says that 39 per cent of Melbourne drivers will actively avoid doing a hook turn, and instead “run around the block and continue making left turns”. 

There are currently 49 hook turns in Melbourne – and according to Currie, we should be proud of each and every one of them. “This is an example of something clever that we’ve always done which we should be taking credit for.” Currie believes more cities around the world should be using the traffic pattern, but notes it would be “far too radical” to change absolutely every intersection. “We’ve come up with something entirely our own and suited to our purpose... It’s something we should take pride in.”

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