Cherie Howie

Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Honk if you're stuck in Auckland's traffic

New Zealanders like their cars. It's as simple as that, says Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee. And that's why no amount of investment in bikes, buses and trains will fix Auckland's congestion - a gridlock that costs the economy $1.25 billion a year, according to a new report. Commuters say New Zealand still needs more and better roads into its biggest city

Chris Carr enjoys driving but makes sure he avoids peak traffic. Photo / Michael Craig
Chris Carr enjoys driving but makes sure he avoids peak traffic. Photo / Michael Craig

In the rolling hills of coastal Waikato, Brett Wood eases his car down the driveway. He pulls on to the country road and pushes down on the accelerator.

Four minutes later he arrives at the central Raglan office where he works as a self-employed mortgage broker. He has travelled 4.5 kilometres.

It's a commute many Aucklanders - edging their cars forward metre by painful metre on snarled up city roads - can only dream of.

Wood feels their pain. He used to live in Mt Albert and hasn't forgotten the old life, that one where travelling to work took an agonising 45 minutes.

"It was extremely annoying, it was just bumper-to-bumper the whole way. The only good thing was listening to Mikey Havoc on bFM."

The 38-year-old doesn't listen to Havoc these days. But the trade-off is not bad - more time on the surfboard, more time with his children.

"At least a couple of times a week I shoot home for lunch and see the kids. You couldn't do that in the city."

Auckland's congestion woes carry a heavy toll, one that reaches far beyond the home life of its citizens. The city is often described as the country's economic powerhouse, and with good reason. Its GDP was $50.5 billion in the year to March last year.

When Auckland roads choke up, everyone pays. A new independent report, commissioned by the New Zealand Transport Agency, puts the national cost of congestion in Auckland at $1.25b - half a billion more than calculated by a similar survey nine years ago.

So how did it happen? And how can the gridlock be released?

Poor planning seems the obvious culprit. As far back as 1923, Minister of Railways Gordon Coates backed the idea of an underground line from Morningside to the central business district. The cost: £616,000. That went nowhere.

An urban fence to control growth was drawn around the city in 1951, but has been extended over and over. In the decade to 2009, the urban limit was stretched eight times, adding almost 2000ha to the city. At the same time, investment in the city's transport network has not kept up.

Howick Local Board member Jim Donald, an ex-cop who also served as a Manukau City councillor for nine years and has listened to many a moan about Auckland traffic, still rues the failure of former Auckland mayor Sir Dove-Myer "Robbie" Robinson to get his inner-city rail plan across the line 40 years ago.

"We have people in charge who are scared to make the big decisions, the decisions Robbie wanted," says Donald. "He wanted inner-city rail to the suburbs but we've been fart-arsing around ever since. We've got to get something in place that's going to get vehicles off the road."

Now, Auckland Council proposes to replace the existing Metropolitan Urban Boundary with a new Rural Urban Limit. The existing limit stops the city at Orewa to the north, Massey to the west, and Papakura to the south. The new limit would enable 160,000 new houses to be build in satellite towns around Warkworth, Kumeu, Silverdale and Pukekohe.

The council and the Government want to convert more farms to suburbia - disagreeing only on how to expedite the developments. Housing Minister Nick Smith is to meet the mayor and councillors tomorrow to discuss the way forward.

The stretch of State Highway One between Khyber Pass and Gillies Ave is just 900m, but it is the busiest stretch in Auckland's highway network. New Zealand Transport Agency figures from 2011 show the road carried more than 196,000 vehicles a day.

In the mornings, city-bound traffic from Newmarket, Epsom and the airport staggers on through the Gillies Ave on-ramp traffic lights, and is forced to immediately and chaotically swap lanes with commuters from further south, trying to escape on to the Gillies Ave, Symonds St, Wellesley St and Port offramps.

To their right, trucks, buses and cars jostle for position ahead of the exit on to the Northwestern Motorway and the Nelson St offramp that carries city workers over Spaghetti Junction to their CBD carparking buildings.

The reverse is true in the evenings: from about 4pm, the four southbound lanes grind almost to a halt as heavy traffic from the Auckland Harbour Bridge, Hobson St in the CBD, Grafton, the Port and the hospital, Khyber Pass and Newmarket elbow for space. Motorists call this stretch of motorway "the parking lot".

At 3.50pm on Thursday, March 7, a car-versus-truck crash a few metres south of the Gillies Ave offramp, on the Newmarket Viaduct, created the perfect storm. Police and the NZTA were forced to close the southbound motorway for two hours, creating chaos from one end of the Supercity to the other.

It came as tertiary students returned from holidays, joining school pupils and other commuters to create already the busiest traffic week of the year. Motorists sat stuck in the middle of the same CBD intersections for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. Nothing moved.

But even on a regular weekday, there are bottlenecks throughout the city. Auckland Harbour Bridge is next off the rank, at 158,220 vehicles a day, and the Northwestern Motorway between Western Springs and Newton Rd carried an average of 121,542 vehicles a day in 2011.

Auckland Transport figures show local roads also bear a heavy burden. The South Eastern Highway caters to 56,000 vehicles a day; Great North Rd's load is 50,000. Out west, Lincoln Rd has fewer vehicles each day (48,000) but is still one of the city's most congested. That is because roadworks at the interchange with SH16 cause drivers to crawl along at average speeds of less than 10km/h during the morning peak.

A Government-ordered study, published last year, says morning rush-hour speeds in the city centre will drop from 16km/h to between 5 and 8km/h over the next 10 years. It will be just as fast to walk from one end of Queen St to the other.

Julie Anne Genter wants to see more people on foot - but not like that. The Auckland-based Green Party transport spokeswoman says you can get people out of their cars, if you make it work for them. "People will do what is most convenient and cheap for them."

Auckland Mayor Len Brown and his councillors are working on a major, integrated transport plan that the mayor proudly calls "pro-motorist and pro-public transport".

It includes integrated public transport ticketing, cycling and walking initiatives and a second Waitemata harbour crossing - but the main focus is on the $2.8b city rail link between Britomart and Mt Eden. Coupled with the new electric train fleet, Brown says that would mean more trains, more often and travelling to more parts of the city. "We have to take the pressure off our roads if Auckland's economy and our people are to keep moving," he says.

In Wellington, Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee concedes he would be happy to see more people on city trains. But he doesn't want to talk about the rail link until more is known about its viability later in the year.

"Public transport is always going to have its limitations because of the point-to-point nature of it," Brownlee argues.

"Aucklanders, like New Zealanders, like to make their own transport choices.

"We've made some big commitments to public transport, both capital and operational cash. To say we should simply do more to fix the problem doesn't recognise that New Zealanders like using their cars."

Chris Carr is one of those who loves to get behind the wheel. The director of 150-year-old family truck transport business, Carr & Haslam, puts himself down for a shift hauling goods about once a month, he says.

He calls those shifts - the latest was on Friday to deliver gas bottles to the Coromandel - his therapy.

But that therapy has a caveat: No peak-hour runs anywhere near the city. Carr, who has led the family business since 1984 and is a former member of the Regional Land Transport Committee, knows about congestion. Every day some of Carr & Haslam's 50 trucks are caught in it.

Carr says the answer isn't choosing between more motorways and more railway lines, it is a mixture of both. He says public transport will not fix things, but it will help.

"By all means encourage people to use public transport, but be realistic that businesses need roads, trucks need roads and cars need roads."

Back in Raglan, traffic congestion is the last thing on Wood's mind. "Down here, the transport doesn't enter your psyche. I don't think about it any more - which is great."

Read more: Auckland's $1.25b gridlock bill

- Herald on Sunday

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