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The bridge is in use and Auckland will never be the same again. The city has still not fully grasped the extent of the changes arising from this momentous event in its history." So wrote the Herald 50 years ago on the day after the Auckland Harbour Bridge was officially opened.

The observation was right. The bridge brought change from its first workaday use when North Shore residents, swapping ferries for cars, created parking nightmares in the city centre. It also created opportunities. The bridge's half-century of history says much about the failure to seize them.

The physical unity provided by the bridge should have been the catalyst for a broader and united local governance. The North Shore, having acquired proximity to Queen St, inevitably would lose its status as a sleepy backwater and undergo rapid urban development. Auckland was primed for growth. The pettiness and parochialism that dominated local-body politics would no longer suffice. The city needed a coherent approach and greater resolve, not least to complete its motorway network.

The creation of the Auckland Regional Authority in 1963 pointed that way, but unity has continued to be elusive. Perhaps only now, 50 years on, with the super-city proposal, are the consequences of the bridge's construction being fully addressed.

The bridge, itself, serves a ringing testament to another recurring Auckland theme - the peril of short-term thinking and penny-pinching. Various reports in the years after World War II recommended either a four- or six-lane bridge. The Harbour Bridge Authority appointed in 1951 to raise public loans and call for tenders, opted for five lanes, two footpaths and a network of approach roads.

The Government of the day took fright at the cost and grudgingly settled on an "austerity" bridge of four lanes and no footpaths. The approach network was saved only because the cheaper alternative through Curran St and Queen St, Northcote, produced a nimby-based public outcry.

Virtually from day one, traffic on the bridge far exceeded expectations. The charging of a toll, for the first time in this country, proved no deterrent. By 1965, annual use exceeded 10 million vehicles, more than three times that anticipated.

The loss of the fifth lane meant the bridge authority could not use tidal flow traffic management to control demand. Four clip-on lanes had to be added in 1969 in a novel piece of engineering, the cost of which far exceeded what would have been the case for any bridge built a decade earlier with a realistic view of probable demand.

That year, also, the consulting engineers to the bridge authority estimated the eight-lane bridge would be adequate only until 1985, and recommended another crossing close to the city centre. It is still being talked about.

For most Aucklanders, the harbour bridge has never achieved quite the status that Sydneysiders accord their bridge. Its appearance was, rather like the Sky Tower, the subject of considerable debate from the outset. The addition of the clip-ons did nothing to enhance the aesthetics. Yet bad-mouthing the design has become a thing of the past, and most people would say now that the bridge has a certain elegance.

It is, first and foremost, however, a structure that has delivered remarkable commercial, residential and social change to Auckland. It provided the chance to create what is now unfailingly referred to as a world-class city. It is hardly the bridge's fault that successive Auckland leaders did not learn the lessons of its construction, understand fully its implications or possess the judgment to use it to best advantage. That chance is still there.

* Auckland Harbour Bridge: 50 Years of a City Icon

The New Zealand Herald covered the bridge story from the beginning.
Today its rich photographic store of the bridge's moods, its construction, and its striking presence is celebrated in a new book, Auckland Harbour Bridge: 50 Years of a City Icon .
Author Renee Lang delved into the treasure trove and brings to life a fascinating history with more than 100 images.
The book is available at most bookstores, $24.99 (Random House) or you can contact the New Zealand Herald photosales department to order a copy: email, or phone 09 373 6093.