Gridlock

Early one morning this week, three Bay of Plenty Times reporters met in Welcome Bay to conduct an experiment.

As part of our comprehensive five-part series, Gridlock – Tauranga's No 1 issue, the reporters wanted to test what form of transport was the quickest on the city's overloaded roads.

Welcome Bay is undoubtedly one of the worst suburbs in Tauranga for traffic congestion during morning and afternoon peak-hour. It is also close enough to the city to make cycling a realistic alternative.

Kiri Gillespie was on her bike. Samantha Motion took a bus. Scott Yeoman drove his car.

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The start line: Welcome Bay Hall on Welcome Bay Rd, 7.30am.

The finish line: The NZME building on Cameron Rd.

Let the race begin ...

Kiri

It's what some might call a "crisp" dawn in Welcome Bay.

The cool morning air bites as I hurtle down a hill towards our meeting point for what we've called The Great Race.

By the time I see Scott, Sam and photographer George outside the Welcome Bay Hall, I've already warmed up. I expect I'll get even warmer as I try to beat them to work to see which mode of transport is quickest – car, bus, or in my case, push-bike.

It's nearly 7.30am and city-bound Welcome Bay Rd traffic is already backed up to Waitaha Rd. I'm quietly confident I will win the race. I spot a fellow cyclist whizzing by as we wait for Bus 40. I give a little fist pump in solidarity. This race is mine!

After a small wait, Sam's bus arrives, Scott's in his car and we all head off at the same time. The others don't get far.

I wave out to Scott as I pass his car and carry on, stopping briefly to get my Map my Ride app going. Countless cars barely crawling by on my right and I recognise an electric blue VW Golf that passed us as we met 15 minutes earlier. Since then, they'd probably travelled maybe 200m.

As I approach the Welcome Bay Rd traffic lights, I spot some left turning traffic giving way to other cyclists. Other drivers don't. I'm so focused on the driver ahead of me and what they'll do, I almost miss whether the lights had changed.

Thankfully, they hadn't. I wave out thanks to the driver and trudge my way up the hill to the underpass. A teenage boy, presumably being driven to school by his mum, watches.

I wonder: "Why aren't you doing the same?" Then figure my red face and puffing probably doesn't sell the mode of transport very well.

At the crest of the underpass, tails of traffic and brake lights lead the way into town.

Drivers are travelling so slowly in the congestion; it's pretty much a smooth run for me all the way. I weave through the avenues and eventually pop out onto Cameron Rd.

Cyclists whizz past a long line of traffic heading towards Turret Rd and the Tauranga CBD. Photo / George Novak
Cyclists whizz past a long line of traffic heading towards Turret Rd and the Tauranga CBD. Photo / George Novak

While I'm waiting at the 11th Ave traffic lights I wonder where my colleagues are, but not for long.

The lights turn green and I embark on my final and favourite leg to the NZME office by 7th Ave – smooth hot mix and dedicated cycle lane makes this part of the journey a breeze.

Moments later, I pull up to the front doors of our NZME building, but Scott and Sam are nowhere to be seen. I check my app – 20.32 minutes. I'd add another minute on for my delay at the start, but still, I've won!

I send a victorious selfie to my colleagues. Sam replies in horror: "Whaaat! I'm on Turret Rd". As for Scott, who knows where he is right now.

At the crest of the underpass, tails of traffic and brake lights lead the way into town.

I might have won but I'm also a hot, sweaty mess and I'm not sure the lunch in my bag has survived. Thankfully, work has a shower, and I've packed a change of clothes.

Biking to work was undoubtedly the quickest and most efficient way to get to work, but unless you have mobility, excellent packing skills and a shower at the end, it might not be for everyone.

With no hassle of finding a park, petrol costs, and congestion frustration, I'm glad it's for me.

Sam

A ripped advertisement featuring a slice of frowning bread greets me at the bus stop.

It stares at me grimly, but neither despondent gluten nor the morning chill will dampen my enthusiasm for my part in this race.

I don't think my bus can beat Kiri on her bike, but I reckon the Hairini St bus lane and lack of a need to park will give me a decent advantage over driver Scott.

The bus is late and the Transit app does not indicate when it might arrive, though it does predict my journey when it starts will be 29 minutes.

I watch school bus after school bus go by full – to varying degrees – of kids taking advantage of the student free fare trial.

Schoolkids amass at our stop, but I find an adult to chat to.

Pip, an office worker and seasoned daily bus user of seven months, immediately dismisses the app. Useless, in her experience.

She usually calls the hotline to see where the bus is.

Pip likes the bus and reckons at $2.72 a trip it's cheaper than driving but says it was better before the new network started in December.

After that it became so unreliable she had to negotiate a 15-minute "grace period" for her start time with her boss. Awkward.

The slice of frowning bread that greets you at the Welcome Bay Hall bus stop. Photo / Samantha Motion
The slice of frowning bread that greets you at the Welcome Bay Hall bus stop. Photo / Samantha Motion

The bus arrives nine minutes late. I've nicked my husband's bus card, so boarding is a breeze.

The bus is two-thirds full – 90 per cent is kids – so I plonk down next to patient Pip.

The route detours off Welcome Bay Rd for a bit and by the time we return to join the slow crawl of vehicles the bus is chocka.

A kid in the aisle counts the adults: Six.

I'm keeping an eye out for Scott and looking forward to the bus lane. When it opened the council predicted buses would be able to pass 100 cars in peak traffic.

Time to test that theory.

Pip reckons it's 90 cars at least, but also that I have no chance of actually counting them.

Right again, Pip. I lost track at 35 as we soar past the queue and forget to look for Scott so we'll take Pip's word for it.

A bus using the bus lane cruises past traffic heading into the Tauranga CBD, towards Turret Rd and the Hairini Bridge. Photo / George Novak
A bus using the bus lane cruises past traffic heading into the Tauranga CBD, towards Turret Rd and the Hairini Bridge. Photo / George Novak

I'm feeling smug on Turret Rd when my phone pings.

Kiri, two thumbs up, in the office.

My smugness fades. But at least I'm warm amid all the body heat and I can read the news.

Pip predicts an exodus when we near the Tauranga Intermediate stop and she's on the money.

The smattering of adults trundles down free-flowing Cameron Rd.

We're a block away from my work when a woman boards and asked to buy a bus card.

Seconds tick by as she and the driver fumble around with cash.

What are they doing! Don't they know this is a race?

We're off again, and I try to strike the exact right moment to hit the stop button.

The driver doesn't hear it, though, and sails by the stop. Quelle horreur!

The ever capable Pip has the matter in hand and calls for him to stop.

It doesn't matter, I've beaten Scott by two minutes for a trip time of 35 minutes.

A victory of sorts but not a definitive one for Tauranga's public transport. We really need some bus lanes. And more adults on the bus.

Scott

At least it's warm inside my car.

There's not a lot else going for me as I wait in the carpark outside the Welcome Bay Hall.

My car radio/CD player has stopped working, I've finished my coffee, and I'm frightfully low on petrol. So I sit in silence, fretting.

I can see the traffic backed up to about 50 metres from where I am pulling out. A line of stationary cars, getting longer.

Sam is at the bus stop making friends, and Kiri is getting ready on her bike.

I open Google Maps, so I can track my progress along the way. It says it's 6.7km to the NZME building on Cameron Rd.

At other times of the day that would take me about 10 to 15 minutes. But not at 7.30am on a weekday morning.

"You are on the fastest route despite unusually heavy traffic," the nice lady from Google says.

Ah, how mistaken you are. There is nothing unusual about this traffic.

Welcome Bay Rd during peak-hour is like driving through a bonnet-high river of golden syrup.

Sam's bus arrives, she hops on, and we all head off.

As predicted, I stop a few seconds later.

That has to be one of the most infuriating feelings a driver can experience – I don't even get to stretch my legs (so to speak), or feel like I'm making any kind of distance before I have to stop again.

Kiri cycles past, giving me the peace sign.

As she smugly rolls on out of view, I crawl. Then I'm stationary. Then I crawl. Then I'm stationary.

Welcome Bay Rd during peak-hour is like driving through a bonnet-high river of golden syrup.

Sam's bus has also somehow disappeared. Isn't it using the same road as I am?

By 7.40am, I am at the intersection with James Cook Drive, where another queue of cars joins our conga line of fun.

I have travelled 700m in 10 minutes. This is worse than I thought. Way worse than I thought.

I can see a walker gaining ground on me to my right. Surely not. I keep looking back in my mirror as I edge forward, nervously following the pedestrian's advance.

Luckily, we start to move more freely, and I've gained a little bit of speed as I pass the Welcome Bay Foodmarket, and then a bunch of school kids waiting at a bus stop.

Bikes continue to pass me, making the most of a cycle lane to my left, but at least I'm moving steadily. Albeit still slowly.

By 7.47am, I am beginning to pass through the Maungatapu Underpass.

It has taken seven minutes to move the next 1.4km.

Four minutes later, I am merging with traffic coming down the hill from the Maungatapu roundabout and together – one big unhappy team of car commuters – we trudge on towards the Hairini Bridge and Turret Rd.

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

But someone's not a team player.

A red car in line has had enough. It pulls out into the empty bus lane and cruises along unimpeded, easily indicating back into the traffic just before the bridge.

I know I am not the only driver jealously tracking its progress while inwardly scowling.

By this stage, I have long given up on The Great Race.

A steady stream of cyclists, mainly school kids, have been whizzing past me to my left, and buses are starting to do the same, thanks to the bus lane.

At least I have plenty of time to take in the view over the water, Tauranga Harbour sparkling in the sun.

It's 7.55am as I drive off the Hairini Bridge, I'm at the intersection of 15th Ave and Fraser St at 7.59am, and I'm pulling into my park on 8th Ave at 8.03am.

A short walk to the newsroom on Cameron Rd and I'm at the front door at 8.07am.

Sam and Kiri are already in the morning news meeting. I'm dead last, with a travel time of 37 minutes.

Three Bay of Plenty Times reporters race from Welcome Bay into the Tauranga CBD – by car, bus and bike.