Gridlock

Dawn is barely breaking across Tauranga, but already thousands of red brake lights line the city's arterial routes.

Workers, up early to beat others, slowly roll their way into the CBD.

The illuminated chains of early morning congestion are a typical scene found on Tauranga's main highways any weekday morning.

At this time of year, peak hours from 7am to 9am and 4pm to 6pm mean many families and individuals hit the road before the sun rises and come home well after the sun has set.

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But just how much worse will the city's traffic become before it gets better? For the most part, the jury is still out.

Tauranga's transportation future is at a crossroads.

Cars crawling towards the Tauranga CBD, down from the Maungatapu roundabout and Welcome Bay. Photo / George Novak
Cars crawling towards the Tauranga CBD, down from the Maungatapu roundabout and Welcome Bay. Photo / George Novak

A stoush between the city's leading roading authorities – Tauranga City Council and the NZ Transport Association – has left the city in limbo.

The transport agency says the council is focussing too much on providing for cars. The council disputes this, saying the agency was part of the plans.

The result is a stalemate – the agency refuses to fund or consider the council's current transportation plan; the council refuses to continue new roading projects.

There are hopes the newly formed Urban Form and Transport Initiative will get transport and housing planning in the Western Bay back on track.

But in the meantime, Tauranga – New Zealand's most car-reliant city – waits.

Investing in a transport mindshift

Former Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stan Gregec. Photo/File
Former Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stan Gregec. Photo/File

For former Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stan Gregec, the answer is to not " keep building more roads alone".

"Tauranga needs to find ways to become a less car-dependent place and to embrace multi-modal transport options," says Gregec, who resigned from his position just before Easter.

"That's why the bus and bike lanes and pedestrian overbridges that we're seeing being built are actually a good long-term investment for us – even though it can be galling to see them not being used at times while there are long rows of cars crawling along the road."

Gregec says such investments made an important statement about what was desirable – and possible – in behavioural change.

Council figures show about 91 per cent of trips to work were done in a private motor vehicle, making the Tauranga the most car-reliant city in New Zealand. By comparison, 1 per cent to 3.2 per cent of commutes were made via bike, and 4 per cent by walking.

Tauranga's transport plan estimates that by 2031 the city needs to have increased the number of people walking and riding bikes in peak traffic to 14 per cent to ensure travel times for motor vehicles are kept at reasonable levels.

"Tauranga needs to find ways to become a less car-dependent place and to embrace multi-modal transport options."

The city's population is predicted to balloon to 180,000 people and 50,000 new homes over the next 30 years – if the city can sort its traffic situation out.

"If we don't get a mind shift away from cars to other transport modes, we are going to be truly stuffed as a city.

"We desperately need to fix our public transport. Anything's worth trying, including free school buses at all times."

The city council is in the midst of a free school bus trial for students in Welcome Bay. On April 10, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council heard submissions in support of free school buses for the whole city, at a cost of $120 a year per household.

Gregec says it is apparent what a dramatic impact the school holidays had in reducing congestion and it did not take much to figure out why.

Responding to Tauranga's rapid rise

Tauranga City Council general manager of infrastructure Martin Parkes regularly rides an e-bike. Photo / File
Tauranga City Council general manager of infrastructure Martin Parkes regularly rides an e-bike. Photo / File

In the heart of Tauranga's CBD sits the council's main building.

Acting general manager of infrastructure Martin Parkes says the council has already spent about $11 million on the city's public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure within the past year.

The $11m would have been more had the council's decision to put roading projects on hold not been made on March 13.

Parkes walks the talk, so to speak. He rides an e-bike to work most days, passing much of the city's congestion.

He says an increase in both residential and commercial activity in the Bay of Plenty, particularly Tauranga city, resulted in more traffic, therefore, more traffic woes.

The rapidly growing population on city roads has also prompted the formation of the Urban Form and Transport Initiative (UFTI) last month.

The group is described online as "focussing on supporting liveable community outcomes" and "finding answers for housing capacity".

Newly elected UFTI chairman Cr Larry Baldock says solutions for the city's transport network problems ultimately lie with the council.

However, the group would help work with others to rejuvenate investment and progress on key projects. It was hoped this coming together of agencies would result in better transport infrastructure to cater for the city's ever-increasing population.

"There are very few cities that have resolved the problem of too many cars. Cities that have done well at managing congestion have invested significantly in travel choices that provide a balanced transport network that moves more people around the city in a more efficient way."

But is it too little, too late?

Counting cars with the Mayor

Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless wants to ensure road reliant businesses don't suffer in the city's future transport plans. Photo / George Novak
Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless wants to ensure road reliant businesses don't suffer in the city's future transport plans. Photo / George Novak

Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless shakes his head as he drives down Cameron Rd.

It's 8am on a grey autumn morning as he, with the Bay of Plenty Times , drives from the CBD to Greerton.

He notices the occupants inside the constant stream of traffic travelling in the opposite direction and remarks about how many are single-occupant vehicles.

The number of cars with at least two people inside is rare. We count three vehicles before giving up.

Brownless agrees there need to be fewer examples of single-occupant vehicles clogging the city's roads. However, he stresses it is still important to look after vehicle-reliant industry.

"It's not just us commuters. It's the businesses that need good transport networks to make the place desirable and [secure] our connections to the Port of Tauranga. Residents, freight and port traffic, all of us require a good transport sector to make our businesses grow and for us to enjoy our leisure lives as well," he says.

"Nobody wants to be stuck in traffic."

Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless says traffic is now the city's number one priority.

Brownless, along with other city and regional leaders, has had many meetings with Government representatives to stress the need for support to help fix Tauranga's traffic woes.

"It is the most serious issue the city faces," Brownless says.

"We are prepared to do what we need to do, but we need the ability and the co-operation from the Government to address these issues."

Managing business amidst traffic woes

Geoff Seavill runs Tauranga Freight Services and is majorly affected by the city's worsening traffic. Photo / Andrew Warner
Geoff Seavill runs Tauranga Freight Services and is majorly affected by the city's worsening traffic. Photo / Andrew Warner

At an old railway yard in industrial Mount Maunganui, truckie Geoff Seavill has already been up since 3.30am.

He's had a job in Auckland so gets up extra early to avoid the worst of the traffic – both there and here.

In the three years of running Tauranga Freight Services, Seavill has seen first-hand the transformation of traffic on Tauranga's roads.

He now spends $1000 a month on toll road expenses to avoid it. But now, clogged traffic at Tauriko is beginning to encroach on Takitimu Drive, threatening the very reason Seavill pays $5.20 a pop to use it.

"It's starting to back up along Route K now. So what happens with that?"

According to the Government, the answer lies in creating more transport options. And the more motorists who choose public transport, cycling or other avenues, the less congested our roads will become.

Concerns Tauranga is coming undone

Simon Bridges, leader of the National Party and Tauranga MP. Photo / File
Simon Bridges, leader of the National Party and Tauranga MP. Photo / File

Tauranga MP and leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges is worried.

During his years as Transport Minister in the former Government, Bridges headed the Tauranga Eastern Link, Maungatapu Underpass and what would have been the Tauranga Northern Link – a project now put on the back burner by the now Labour-led Government.

Bridges admits he is "frustrated" but concedes "I'm not the Government now".

Bridges, who in 2008 campaigned on widening Turret Rd, says he worries the housing industry will look elsewhere for work. The current stalling of roading projects and push for multi-modal options is having a direct impact on the city's ability to build houses, he says.

His message comes two months after developers Classic Group's Peter Cooney, Carrus' Scott Adams and Bluehaven's Nathan York presented their same concerns to the council, warning they were in "dire straights".

Wellington's response

Transport Minister Phil Twyford says building more roads is not the answer to Tauranga's traffic issues. Photo / NZME
Transport Minister Phil Twyford says building more roads is not the answer to Tauranga's traffic issues. Photo / NZME

In Wellington, Transport Minister Phil Twyford is quick to dispute the Government's multi-modal desires are coming at the expense of people and businesses using cars.

Although Tauranga's congestion was "worse than ever", building more motorways "isn't going to cut it in Tauranga".

Instead, the Government's plans are "rebalancing transport investment and giving people real transport choices" to free up the roads for people who have to drive.

Twyford confirms meeting with local representatives and is aware of the city's concerns.

The Government was now "tooling up" a Housing and Urban Development Authority "to cut through the red tape" and lead large-scale projects, he says.

"We are also working on alternative infrastructure funding and financing models to help unlock better urban growth. The Government will be working very closely with the private sector through both of these initiatives to help fast-track developments and to make sure we're taking a joined-up approach to growing cities out with adequate transport links."

We spend a morning at one of Tauranga's biggest choke points for traffic; Turret Rd.

This week, the Bay of Plenty Times reported the Employers and Manufacturers Association called for a Tauranga version of the Auckland Transport Alignment Plan, which integrated transport priorities with land use priorities – such as commercial and residential development – and considered multiple transport modes.

Twyford says this option is heartening and he encourages councils to put plans in the project "into their regional land transport plan to be evaluated and progressed".

The wait continues

Traffic backed up on 15th Ave at 5pm is a typical sight. Photo / Andrew Warner
Traffic backed up on 15th Ave at 5pm is a typical sight. Photo / Andrew Warner

Back on Tauranga's streets, it can take a person travelling from the CBD to Pāpāmoa up to an hour to get home on a bad day. Much of the commute is spent waiting in exhaust fumes among traffic at a standstill on 15th Ave.

Buses crawl out from bus stops to join the queue. Cyclists whiz by. A person on an electric scooter hums past.

Whether there will be any change to this scenario anytime soon is unlikely. Whether it will happen at all remains unknown.

And so the city waits.