Hands up who loves road cones. Anyone? No one. Unfortunately, however, at the moment you can barely move around some Auckland city streets without seeing one. Or several hundred.
Road cone antics have become internet memes as workers hurl them like it's an Olympic sport and keas drag them around at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel. There's a long tradition of students snatching them at night to store in flats but these days the cones even have their own social media accounts.
They're also seriously big business, with an estimated one million dotted around the country and annual sales worth about $4 million. Former Prime Minister Sir Bill English once joked when he arrived in Auckland that he should buy shares in the company behind them.
The Herald on Sunday decided this was a trend that needed more investigation. Has New Zealand reached peak road cone? Why do we have so many? Why do they have holes in the top of them? Why are they orange and not green or blue? Who owns them all and who's cashing in on our road cone explosion?
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• Ask Phoebe : Mystery of the orange road cones unravelled
• Video showing road workers' down time sparks fierce debate
Cones are a relatively recent invention, less than a century old.
Chris Darby, a North Shore councillor and Auckland Council's planning committee chairman, is old enough to recall when pre-cone devices were 44-gallon drums and reckons the plastic-fantastic cone beats the old-timer device hands down.
"Cones are a lot more forgiving to the car than those steel oil drums that got in the way of my '63 VW Beetle when I was a student in the mid-70s," says Darby.
He admits he "loves a cone or two". Though of a different type. The Stanley Bay local recounts the delight of visiting nearby Cheltenham's iconic White's Dairy on Vauxhall Rd, which serves ice cream in cones. Imagine having a traffic cone filled with ice cream, he posits.
Deputy mayor Bill Cashmore joins in the mirth: "Double scoop!"
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Wellington lobbyist Mark Unsworth is aghast at our cone proliferation: "We are the only country I know with this ridiculous obsession with road cones. Where there used to be five, you now get 50, and should a road have a few small pebbles out of place, some dickhead from the council puts up 10 bloody road cones around it," he complains.
"I have to be jealous at whoever the road cone manufacturer was who lobbied for the crazy rules here in NZ - undoubtedly a gazillionaire now!"
The Herald has reported how Auckland has 63 sets of roadworks or public construction projects in the CBD in 2020, prompting Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye to call for better coordination and sequencing of the projects to ease stress and congestion of all the roadworks.
At Ōtāhuhu, alongside a factory in a parking lot up against a fence, two pallets of worn-out, beaten-up, fading, scraped, scratched road cones stand on their planks under a burning late January sun.
Proline Plastics is where thousands of our road cones are made. The also return here once they are dead or damaged to be reborn.
"They're about to be chipped," explains cone eco-warrior Cameron Smith, general manager of the road cone manufacturer and recycler, as he surveys 400 doomed cones - many with blackened bases or scarred points. Others have ripped or damaged reflectors, making them nocturnally questionable.
All show their scars from the hard life of standing sentry against danger - often with little thanks, their presence greeted more with hostility than gratitude, particularly by frustrated Auckland CBD visitors, workers and residents.
"Their life span can be just a few months, to up to five years," explains Smith, almost jumping out of his checked shirt and tan loafers as he excitedly leads on to the next stage. Each cone has a date stamp under its base, so he knows its exact age.
Croxley Recycling's truck will pick up those cones, drive them to West Auckland and then chip them into pieces about half the size of a fingernail.
"And that's what they come back as," Smith explains, picking up a handful of confetti-like colourful chips with pride at what he says is New Zealand's only cone recycler and only one of two New Zealand cone manufacturers.
Those chips will be returned to Smith's Portage Rd factory, where they will be mixed with new chips, melted down and reborn as an entirely new road cone - with shiny new grey undamaged, unripped reflectors.
"I see bad ones out there," Smith frowns, indicating the need for more surveillance and removal of defunct road cones to meet the NZ Transport Agency standards as he leads us towards two machines, each the size of an articulated lorry.
Inside the factory, flexible orange PVC bases are made in the first stage of production using injection moulding.
Once the hot bases are spat out, they are trimmed and sanded, then rolled a few metres to the point-maker, where each base is fitted into the enclosed Cincinnati Milacon machine.
Within about two minutes, liquid plastic has been poured into a mould to form the point and that top has been fitted to the base.
The warm, completed cone then has reflective decals applied towards the tip and centre, it's then put in a paint booth where the base is painted to be exactly the same orange as the point, then each completed cone goes onto a conveyor to cool, ready for pallet stacking.
Proline has been making cones since the mid-90s and, based on when cones first arrived in this country as well as annual numbers made or imported and those scrapped, Smith estimates New Zealand has around one million road cones.
But getting exact numbers is challenging. When asked, an NZTA spokesperson suggested we make inquiries elsewhere "because NZTA isn't like the old the Ministry of Works. We don't own road cones. Also, many road cones will be on local roads which we don't control."
Nor could Auckland Transport give exact numbers, saying although it had control of 7500km of Auckland roads, not all - thankfully - are coned. Those selling cones refused to provide information, citing commercial confidentiality.
But one expert estimated that annually, cone sales could be worth anywhere between $3.7m to $4.7m.
One source estimated New Zealand needs 170,000 to 200,000 new cones annually.
These come from Taiwan, India and China and only a small portion are made locally - a situation some in the sector think needs a Donald Trump-style approach, to slap tariffs on imported road cones, generate jobs and production locally.
Proline's Smith says cones' lifespan here varies from six months to five years.
"Most of them which become defunct or are driven over."
In the past three years, Proline has recycled around 38 tonnes of road cones, amounting to part of 8000 cones, but Smith wants to do far more and applied unsuccessfully for a Ministry for the Environment waste minimisation fund grant last year. He plans to apply again.
"My goal is to make and recycle more road cones here. We don't want them dumped in rivers and creeks and landfills," Smith complains.
Jon Reeves, who founded the Public Transport Users Association, applauds cones as a means to an end, saying bus journey times should be improved after roadworks are finished to create more busways.
Richard Wheeler, a Christchurch clinical psychologist, says cones are "painful reminders of what we experienced and continue to experience".
Agapanthus and other big-topped flowers "blooming" atop cones has been one way Cantabrians have sought to disarm what some see as a fearful spectre. Wheeler thinks if manufacturers painted smiley faces on cones, that might allay some fury and fear, create more positive emotions.
Cones remind Wheeler of February 2011, when he had to go in search of fresh water, of broken roads, his broken home and a wrecked city.
"Cones are symbolic of what went wrong and they're a lasting symbol of anger, helplessness, possibly fear. They might cause road rage in some people because we feel irritated by them," Wheeler says.
Instead of representing safety and caution, Wheeler says Christchurch cones are symbols which engender extremely negative emotions and personally remind him of people who fled the city, never to return.
"Cones here are loaded with memory," Wheeler concludes.
Jim Lawrence is the sales manager at one of New Zealand's biggest cone importers, the Mt Maunganui-headquartered Traffic Signs NZ which imports cones from Taiwan, objects he is extremely proud of.
He is sceptical of calls for more cone recycling: "They're used in road works where there's road widening, bitumen, road marking, many other contaminants. Would you want contaminated materials in your child's playground? These are not easily recyclable products due to all the contaminants," Lawrence says, smarting about "devious" writings which criticised low recycling levels in New Zealand.
The business where he works supplies cones to many roading and traffic management specialists, including Evolution, now busy on Victoria St West's cycleway project and hundreds of Evolution-branded cones stand sentry there.
Lawrence is proud of his firm's Taiwanese-imported product partly because it is so durable and well-made that it can withstand New Zealand's climate variance, from the central plateau's Desert Rd to mid-Otago.
Cones must not melt in searing heat or shatter in freezing cold, Lawrence says, speculating about the environmental damage if thousands suffered such a terrible fate.
"Rubbish" products on the market here could have such meltdowns or breakups, he warns.
Asked why Traffic Signs NZ only imported orange cones, Lawrence says that was due to the NZTA safety standard which demanded they be that colour - not fluoro green or pink or any other hue.
An NZTA spokesman says that entity's role in the use of cones was to specify and monitor correct usage. Size, shape and colour specifications were set, he says.
Traffic management has become a huge business in New Zealand.
Deane Manley, managing director of Onehunga-headquartered mobile crane specialists NZ Crane Hire, acknowledges the dozens of road cones which march out when one of his huge German-built Liebherrs rolls onto a site, diverting traffic and often causing some disruption.
"What do I think of road cones? I don't," Manley admits, then adds: "If I was getting into another business, it would be road cones. We don't own any because we hire traffic management specialists. We get the experts to do all that."
What amazes Manley is the odd places cone turn up, "like the top of Norfolk Island Pines".
Brett Phibbs, the Herald's former chief photographer, along with current chief visual journalist Dean Purcell, started an Instagram - and now Twitter - account #RoadconePorn.
"We noticed a lot of them in unusual places," Phibbs explains. "It started from there. If you think of a road cone as a living thing, you might get it. Plus, with the captions which are delivered in jest - some people get it but others don't."
People got it. The string now has more than 2000 posts.
Traffic accident witness Vicky also gets it, complaining on Twitter how she saw a bus brutally kill a road cone and mourning the "poor guy".
Insta's #RoadconePorn has the items throughout Japan, the United States and elsewhere atop glass bus shelters, wearing angry faces, as the "new state flower" of Nevada, in a stainless steel urinal, wearing bike helmets, and perched on a steel sculpture saying 'why not, thought the traffic cone.'
Cones have become a symbol of disruption and delay as much as danger avoidance.
John Dakin is chief executive of Goodman Property Trust, the multi-billion-dollar real estate portfolio and prolific developer. He supports the humble cones as a "necessary evil". His firm doesn't own the cones, he acknowledges, his contractors certainly do and by the warehouse-load.
The highly coned Quay St coning delayed Dakin's home-to-work journey recently by more than an hour, a trip blighted by the torturous sight of slow-moving traffic cones "not something I'll repeat, I'll go another way".
Being a cone is no easy life. To comply with NZ Transport Agency's Code of Practice for Temporary Traffic Management, cones must:
• be sufficiently stable to remain upright in most anticipated service conditions.
• have a base designed to stop the cone from rolling if knocked over.
• be capable of returning to their original shape after impact.
• be made of a flexible polymer or similar material.
Adsafe, a business which sells cones, supplies 900mm reflectorised cones for $28.70, 700mm for $25.50 and 450mm for $17.85 whereas non-reflectorised cones are $25.95, $21.45 and $13.25.
Cones which can multitask by collapsing in on themselves cost more: $64.90 and $41.36 Both sizes are reflectorised, giving night patrol properties: "Collapsible cones are ideal where you don't have much room for storing road cones, especially for use in emergency vehicles and breakdown kits," Adsafe tells customers.
As for why they have holes in the top, it's for flags or signs or signals.
And are we at peak cone? Not likely, given the proliferation of the traffic management sector, strengthening in health and safety standards and the number of major infrastructure jobs on nationally.
Cones: friends or foe? You decide.
Images from Instagram's #roadconeporn
To drill down into Auckland's road cone population, the Herald put questions to Auckland Transport, probably New Zealand's greatest generator of road cone populations.
Q: How many road cones does Auckland Transport have on jobs currently?
A: That's a hard one. Most of the cones belong to private contractors who are doing work for AT, Watercare, City Rail Link, Vector, Healthy Waters plus all the private developments across Auckland.
Q: Where do they come from? i.e where do the contractors source them from?
A: Some are made in NZ. Most are imported in bulk but you can buy them at your local hardware store priced from around $14 to $34 depending on the size and type.
Q: Does AT own any cones or do the contractors own them?
A: AT owns a few but the vast bulk are owned by the contractors who work for all and sundry. Occasionally we come across a cone that has been put out (unauthorised) by a resident to save a car park – that's something you're not allowed to do.
Q: Approx how many kilometres of roads are they standing on?
A: We have 7500km of roads in total in Auckland but, of course, not every road is home to a cone. This year we will do work on about 10 per cent of our roads but there will be more work in high-profile areas like the central city where the build is on for the CRL and there is a lot of private construction.
Q: Do you think people like or dislike them?
A: It's a love-hate relationship. Probably a little more hate than love but cones are a sign of progress in our dynamic city.
Q: What is cones' most important function?
A: Provide guidance (delineation) for road users to direct them around or through a worksite/hazard area.
Q: How important are cones to AT?
A: They are more effective than signs. They are critical for the separation of road users/road workers/risks. They guide pedestrians, cyclists, scooter riders and motorists to the safe route through a work zone.
Q: What did AT use before cones?
A: Drums were used until the late 90s after which they were outlawed due to an incident in which a pedestrian was seriously harmed by a flying one. The contractors also use water-filled barriers now, which are a much safer option.
Q: Are the current road cones recycled or dumped?
A: They get used and reused.
Q: What is a cone's life span?
A: Many years if they are not stolen, lost or forgotten. They're built to last.
Q: Where are the most in any one area of Auckland?
A: The Downtown/Quay St area and central city.