Gridlock

Tauranga has grown hugely over the past 20 years – but it has come at a considerable cost.

Frustrated motorists are often left battling queues of vehicles on key roads in the mornings and late afternoons across the city – putting pressure on them, their families and their lives.

In the first of a comprehensive five-part series, the Bay of Plenty Times reveals new figures which show exactly how traffic has grown, where the city's chokepoints are, how it's affecting people and businesses, where we're at with public transport, and what the potential solutions are.

This is Gridlock – Tauranga's No. 1 issue.

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Tauranga's weekly vehicle count through 10 of its busiest intersections has soared by nearly 800,000 in six years – a rise of almost 40 per cent.

And the mayor warns the city faces an ''absolute crisis'' if nothing is done to fix the problem.

Dramatic new council figures, released exclusively to the Bay of Plenty Times , show 767,000 more vehicle movements through those key areas compared with 2013.

It confirms what many frustrated motorists already suspect – thousands of additional cars on our roads are causing gridlock most weekday mornings and afternoons, placing an enormous strain on lives, businesses and the wider city.

The busiest intersections of the 10 this year are Hewletts Rd and Totara St, 15th Ave and Cameron Rd, Hewletts Rd and Jean Batten Drive, and Moffat Rd and State Highway 2.

Most of the increase in weekly vehicle movements across all 10 intersections has been in the past three years.

The council data also shows:

•In 2019, there are more than 2.8 million vehicle movements through 10 of our busiest intersections weekly.
•Over the past six years, that weekly traffic total has risen 37.54 per cent.
•Between 2013 and 2016, the weekly total grew by 10.2 per cent and between 2016 and 2019, it grew by 24.81 per cent.

The figures point to a transport network under increasing stress and a city reaching a crossroads in dealing with its worsening traffic problems.

The traffic situation in Tauranga has reached boiling point, with the city council and the national roading authority clashing in a tense stalemate.

The council suspended millions of dollars of major transport and safety projects in protest at a "paralysis" of action from the New Zealand Transport Agency.

The agency said the city's plan did not align with the Government Policy Statement and focused too much on cars instead of alternative transport.

Like thousands of others, Tauranga mum and businesswoman Erika Harvey battles traffic Monday to Friday.

Her family lives in Bethlehem, her daughter goes to school in Greerton and her office is in Mount Maunganui, which means she is often held up at more than one of those 10 busy intersections.

"I have found myself working from home instead of going to the office due to the traffic congestion. It is no longer productive as I waste too much time in my car."

Harvey has changed routes and the times she leaves different locations because of the increasing commute times and sometimes rides her bike to meetings to avoid the congestion and save time.

Tauranga mum and businesswoman Erika Harvey knows all about Tauranga's increasing traffic woes, she battles congestion every day of the working week. Photo / File
Tauranga mum and businesswoman Erika Harvey knows all about Tauranga's increasing traffic woes, she battles congestion every day of the working week. Photo / File

Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless said traffic was now the city's No. 1 issue and predicted an "absolute crisis" if authorities did not act now.

"It's bad enough now and if nothing's done, if all these things that are being planned to be done don't happen, then it will get to that," he said.

Brownless said the increasing traffic reflected the population rise.

"More people coming to live here, more cars on the road."

He has experienced first-hand the congestion at some of those 10 busy intersections, as well as others around the city.

"There's just so many … all of those intersections with the state highways – they're all equally bad, in my view."

Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless says traffic is now the city's number one issue. Photo / George Novak
Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless says traffic is now the city's number one issue. Photo / George Novak

The new data shows nine of the 10 intersections have seen percentage increases in double figures since 2013.

The three most significant surges have been at the intersection of Takitimu Drive and Elizabeth St in the central city (91.84 per cent up), at the Maungatapu roundabout (91.64 per cent up), and the Welcome Bay roundabout (81.7 per cent up).

Bay of Plenty regional councillor Stuart Crosby, who is the chairman of the regional transport committee and was Tauranga Mayor for four terms (2004-2016), said several factors were contributing to Tauranga's unique traffic problems.

The city's busiest intersections were often used for through traffic – trucks and other vehicles travelling through the district.

"The other big reason is of course that the state highway network is also used by our locals to get from A to B, which is not always the case in many areas of New Zealand."

Add to that, Crosby said, the population growth of Tauranga and the Western Bay, and also the high business activity and ongoing GDP growth in the area.

"Which is great, but it does ... highlight weaknesses in our infrastructure, particularly transport."

Bay of Plenty Regional Councillor Stuart Crosby, who is the chairman of the regional transport committee. Photo / Andrew Warner
Bay of Plenty Regional Councillor Stuart Crosby, who is the chairman of the regional transport committee. Photo / Andrew Warner

Crosby said people in Tauranga and the Western Bay had been reticent to get out of their vehicles and use other types of transport, which had only been made easier by a strong economy and relatively cheap fuel prices and cars.

Work had started in designing a refreshed transport system that would give people more transport choices for moving around the city, he said.

James Wickham, manager of the Tauranga Transport Operations Centre, said the 2019 city council traffic figures were mostly collated during the second week of March, using inductive loop counters embedded in the ground at each intersection.

Where this technology and method were not possible or unavailable, the latest and nearest relevant rubber tube counters were used to deduce the volumes on each approach of the intersection.

Wickham said there could be some seasonal factors that influenced the data. For instance, March was generally considered to be the busiest month of the year.

He said increased traffic coming over the Tauranga Harbour Bridge would be impacting the Takitimu Drive/Elizabeth St intersection, and the increases at the Girven Rd/Maunganui Rd intersection outside Bayfair mall in Mount Maunganui would be contributing to the increases on Hewletts Rd.

"However, a significant increase has occurred at Totara St, possibly people moving permanently into what were once holiday homes at the Mount."

Traffic congestion on Totara St in Mount Maunganui. Photo / Andrew Warner
Traffic congestion on Totara St in Mount Maunganui. Photo / Andrew Warner

Wickham also noted the "significant area of growth" through Bethlehem.

There were five major roads leading into the Tauranga CBD and all needed to be counted together when assessing traffic going in and out, he said.

"You have to remember that it is a transport network and looking at sites in isolation can provide a distorted perspective."

For Mayor Brownless, fixing Tauranga's traffic issue is the No. 1 priority.

"And I believe council would see it the same way because it has an effect on everything..."

That includes housing and business, he said, and unless the city's transport infrastructure is vastly improved and invested in, Tauranga is going to become "an unpleasant place to live".

"And it has to start now."

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

Tauranga's traffic congestion is having a major impact on people's lives.

It is affecting the time people wake up, leave home for work, drop off children, and arrive home at the end of the working day. In some cases, it means they're seeing less of their family.

And the impact is being felt at schools and before-and-after-school care centres across the city with kids being dropped off before the doors have even opened.

Read here to discover the human impact of Gridlock - Tauranga's No. 1 issue.

Read here to see what the mayor has to say in a special guest editorial.

Read here for Dylan Thorne's editorial, launching this five-part series.

Tomorrow, we reveal how traffic congestion is affecting businesses, and why it could have a devastating impact on the housing sector and wider economy.