Auckland empties on long weekends, for good reason. The motorways north and south lead to Northland, Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty, regions of sublime coastal attractions, smaller cities, less traffic, all within a few hours' drive of Auckland.

Little wonder those cities are starting to get bigger as increasing numbers of Aucklanders decide to make their escape permanent. The decision probably forms most strongly on the drive.

If leaving the big city on a long weekend is a relief, returning to it is always a shock. The closer you get, from the north or south, the heavier the traffic becomes. If it is congested it is a grind, if it's flowing it is suddenly faster than where you have been.

The rush and whirr of multi-lanes of cars, the merging traffic and all the buildings, the business of it all. It summons you back with its noise and fumes and indifference, as though you had never left.


Our Tauranga reporter, Jamie Morton, today describes what it is like for those going the other way, leaving Auckland to go home. Life in the Western Bay sounds relaxing. It will be the same in Rotorua, Whakatane, Thames, Taupo and many other places Aucklanders are contemplating, particularly at this time of year, amid "March madness".

The city's traffic and public transport are heaviest in March as the university year begins and just about everyone has returned from summer holidays. It is still warm and nobody is off work with colds and flu. The leave and illnesses that reduce commuting numbers on most days over the rest of the year do not happen in March.

The "liveable city" seems to be eluding its planners. A researcher has calculated Aucklanders can expect to spend the equivalent of 20 working days a year just getting to work in the traffic. Buses and trains should be an attractive alternative, but they are notoriously crowded, too, and often late and slow.

At least relief is coming for rail commuters. Work is beginning on the central underground link. But the preparatory work for the project has turned the city centre into a mess of road cones, street and lane detours and yet more congestion. When the digging starts downtown it will only get worse.

Despite it all, of course, Auckland is booming. Any exodus to smaller cities is more than made up by immigrants looking for the opportunities provided by a bigger population.

Worldwide, populations are gravitating to cities. They want the buzz of proximity to busy people and creative networks. Auckland is not about to shrink but it is good our other centres are beginning to catch its outflow.