Once upon a time, traffic didn't really exist in Tauranga.
In fact, if you lived in New Zealand, traffic didn't really exist anywhere outside of Auckland.
These days, however, traffic has become "the traffic" and a regular topic of conversation around the office water cooler. In Tauranga, it is even on the verge of becoming a legitimate excuse for being late to work as people lament getting stuck in long lines of cars and slow-moving intersections.
It is a slightly depressing fact of life that as any city grows, so too does the pressure on its infrastructure, whether it be roads, schools, stormwater or hospitals - and Tauranga is no exception.
As is regularly reported, the city is the centrepiece of one of the country's fastest growing regions, with 2 per cent population growth last year alone. It is also home to New Zealand's largest export port by volume.
People are migrating to the Bay in droves and quite simply, this growth means more vehicles on the roads.
Some fear Tauranga is becoming a mini Auckland, saying congestion is getting unbearable in places, while others argue the complaints are about nothing - that "congestion" is just a perception among long-time residents failing to wake up to the fact that Tauranga is no longer a quiet coastal fishing village.
Transport and local authorities and the Government acknowledge there are crunch points on the city's roading network, but say it is confined to peak hours and a huge effort and hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested to alleviate the pressure.
They point in particular to two major projects - the $102 million Baypark to Bayfair [B2B] upgrade, which will see the Baypark and Bayfair roundabouts replaced by flyovers, and the $100 million Hairini Link, which includes a $45 million underpass currently being constructed under the Maungatapu roundabout.
Completion of the urban cycleway and multi-million dollar investment in public transport is also planned to ease congestion, but for now, there is no escaping the fact the word "traffic" is hot on many people's lips.
"Welcome Bay," "Bayfair roundabout," "Totara St," "Cameron Rd," "Oropi roundabout," "Omokoroa to Bethlehem" ... "Everywhere."
The Bay of Plenty Times Facebook page lit up with a rapid stream of comments when we asked people to identify Tauranga's worst hot spots for traffic congestion this week.
More than 100 people posted their opinions, Welcome Bay emerging as a clear problem for many morning commuters.
"Welcome Bay. Seriously," wrote Shawny Sophia.
Tabitha Mayo said: "Welcome Bay Rd is a shocker."
Gemma Collins said the two-lane road, which stretches several kilometres, is a trap "as there's only one lane heading towards Tga unless u want to go around the long way, then get stuck at Maungatapu. [sic]"
Others said the congestion at the top of Welcome Bay Rd prompted impatient motorists to run red lights, causing a bottleneck with traffic coming from Ohauiti. Catherine Hawkes said she needs an hour to get to work from Welcome Bay to Bethlehem, which is 10km away. "I leave at 8am to be at work in Bethlehem at 9am."
Getting through the Maungatapu roundabout and along Turret Rd up Fifteenth Ave was also a curse for people.
"Turret is crazy," wrote Nina Wild.
Other routes singled out for criticism included the Bayfair roundabout, which was described as "dangerous" and "atrocious" by separate posters.
"[I] hate driving through there," said another post. Oropi roundabout was also "shocking", while Cameron Rd, Cambridge Rd, Pyes Pa, Barkes Corner, Hewletts Rd and Totara St were among other identified hot spots.
For Annelise Dirkse, the section of State Highway 2 from Omokoroa to Bethlehem was the worst. "Sometimes it's backed right up to Whakamarama for no reason at all. Every morning is different, you can never bank on being at work at a certain time."
Colleen Watts said the 20-minute trip from Omokoroa to Bethlehem took 40 minutes at morning peak, while several people felt congestion was a city-wide problem. "Everywhere is too busy," said Diane Cranston. "Too many people are moving here and our roads are not adequate."
Tracey and Russell Donovan wrote that it is because "all roads lead to one in this town".
But others wondered what the fuss was about, saying Tauranga did not, in fact, have a congestion problem.
"Compared to Auckland, nowhere [is a hot spot]," wrote Michael Fletcher.
Said Mike Pole: "Enjoy what T [Tauranga] is and has."
Congestion or 'congestion'?
So is congestion real or a perception?
"I think it depends on what perspective you're coming from whether you think we have a congestion problem or not," says Tauranga City Council transport manager Martin Parkes.
"Certainly if you've moved down from Auckland or up from Wellington, I think your life is probably slightly different from someone who has lived in Tauranga most of their life."
Nigel D'Ath, the New Zealand Transport Agency's journey manager for the Bay of Plenty, agrees.
"I think if you asked anybody who lives in Auckland or other major cities around the world, they would say that our congestion is very minor."
Mr D'Ath says traffic tends to become a topic of conversation when people go back to work and school after summer holidays and having experienced quieter journeys during the break.
The Western Bay has really strong growth and that brings problems and one of them is having to wait behind cars sometimes. But while that is a problem, it's a really good one to have. There's much of provincial New Zealand that doesn't have it, and that's why we have got that investment [in infrastructure].
"It's not unusual for us to get concerns about 'congestion', in inverted commas, at this time of year," he says.
Martin Parkes says the council acknowledges there is congestion at peak times of the day on Tauranga's roading network but says "certain levels of congestion aren't a bad thing because it actually helps control demand for road space. We obviously want to encourage more people to shift from the private motor car to public transport, walking and cycling. If you have a free-flowing road network with very little congestion it's very difficult to get that modal shift."
Tauranga MP and Transport Minister Simon Bridges points to the advantages of crowded roads as a welcome sign of growth.
"The Western Bay has really strong growth and that brings problems and one of them is having to wait behind cars sometimes. But while that is a problem, it's a really good one to have. There's much of provincial New Zealand that doesn't have it, and that's why we have got that investment [in infrastructure]."
Bay of Plenty Times staff commutes
Mr Bridges says the region has been the recipient of unprecedented investment in roading in the last few years, totalling a billion dollars once the B2B and Hairini Link projects are completed [see details in "Projects to ease pain"].
Combined with the recently completed Tauranga Eastern Link [TEL], the Harbour Link, and Takitimu Drive Toll Road, he says they will complete "a ring road" around the city to improve the flow of people and goods through the region and drive social and economic growth.
"It's that ring road that's really going to be the game-changer. When that is completed, we will have the best city roading infrastructure in New Zealand."
The big picture
Tauranga City Council has a multitude of local projects and planned projects aimed at easing congestion and keeping pace with growth.
Transport manager Martin Parkes rattles off a long list of roads and intersections being examined, including Elizabeth St/Takitimu Drive, Hewletts Rd and Turret Rd, adding that a current focus is bringing forward projects in the high-growth Papamoa East district, including links to the new TEL.
He also points to work on the urban cycleway and campaigns to encourage people into public transport.
He says uptake of public transport has been "disappointingly slow" but greater use of buses could go a long way to easing pressure at flash points such as Welcome Bay Rd about which people complain.
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"If you can shift say 40, 50 cars or even more of that part of the network, it starts to have a positive impact on the congestion in that area."
He says keeping pace of growth is a challenge but the level of work by transport officials, when you consider the fact some roads were quiet country lanes 10 years ago, is intense. "There's a lot going on I can assure you. We're very busy people."
NZTA's Nigel D'Ath says any work to ease congestion cannot be done in isolation.
"We don't just go to the next pinch point and say now we need to fix that pinch point. We look at the overall network."
He says the Port of Tauranga features heavily in any transport plans.
"In terms of NZ Inc's wealth and growth it is important that we try to get freight to and from the port in an efficient manner. We're not just thinking about the commuter and people going about their daily lives. We're also thinking very much about how do we improve freight efficiency for the benefit of the Bay of Plenty and New Zealand."
Mr D'Ath says completed projects such as the TEL and Takitimu Drive toll road have already gone some way to easing congestion, and the fact they are being used by more vehicles than initially predicted shows people enjoy the free-flowing routes.
He says some congestion is inevitable during construction of new roads, but that commuters could avoid delays by considering alternative travel times and public transport.
The NZTA was looking at incentives and innovations for both motorists and contractors to ease extra congestion resulting from the upcoming B2B, and one possibility being mooted was T2 or T3 lanes, which give vehicles carrying more than one person priority passage.
Mr Bridges urged patience during the four-year project. "Rome wasn't built in a day," he said.
PROJECTS TO EASE PAIN
- The $100 million Hairini Link, which includes the $45 million Maungatapu underpass designed to separate state highway and local traffic (see digital animation at www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/ hairini-link). Construction began in September and is scheduled to take three years.
- The $102 million Baypark to Bayfair, or B2B, project which will begin later this year and include two flyovers to ease congestion at Bayfair and the railway crossing by Baypark (see digital animation at www.nzta.govt.nz/projects/baypark-to-bayfair-linkupgrade). It is scheduled for completion in 2020. ? The $6.91 million Tauranga Urban Cycleway Network Connections to be completed by mid-2018. This project will fill the missing links in the city's existing urban cycle network, completing the final 60km of 10 commuter routes that connect residential areas with commercial zones, schools and other key destinations. The project will include the installation of more cycle lanes and overbridges to improve the safety and flow of cyclists through major intersections.
- The $7.7 million Omokoroa to Tauranga cycleway, which will span 16km. Like the urban cycleway, it is being jointly funded by the National Land Transport Fund, the Urban Cycleways Fund and local government.
- An additional $8 million towards improving public transport in Tauranga has been allocated under the National Land Transport Programme 2015-18. An additional $22 million is planned for investment over the next 10 years.
- An additional $12 million has been allocated to reduce safety risks on major roads and highways, including $7 million to improve the Minden Rd/Te Puna intersection. State Highway 2 between Bethlehem and Omokoroa and on to Waihi is also a focus.
- Major projects completed in recent years include the $455 million Tauranga Eastern Link, the $68 million Route K (now called Takitimu Drive Toll Road), the Harbour Link, four-laning of Hewletts Rd and the building of the flyover there, and the signalisation of the Maungatapu and Welcome Bay roundabouts. - Source: NZTA