COMMENT

I am sitting in a traffic queue, not in Auckland, where I have sat in similar queues more often and longer, but at Kopu. I notice that the red WRX which hounded me at Mangatarata before accelerating past in a flurry of exhaust fumes, skipping up the line of cars in front like a sewing machine, is now just two cars in front.

I smile: the Kopu Bridge is a great leveller.

Once again the bridge and its queues are in the news. It is a perennial Christmas punching bag, because the excitement peaks in the holiday season when people from elsewhere are rushing to their baches, seemingly worried they might lose an hour of their holidays.

There are huffing editorials and letters to the editor, investing in the bridge symbolism of all that is seen as wrong in New Zealand: planning inertia, environmental dilly-dallying, financial incompetence and cultural wussiness.

This summer there is even a local petition demanding that Transit New Zealand put a new bridge higher on its priority list.

Well, it possibly is time for the bridge to be replaced, but as I sit in the queue I wonder at our increasing intolerance of delays.

As Jeanette Fitzsimons pointed out, for the vast majority of the time waits there are no worse than are accepted at Auckland traffic lights. Or perhaps not accepted, judging by the amount of red-light jumping.

A couple years or so back, when my wife and I were on our big European OE, I read in the International Herald Tribune of the experience of an American film-maker in Italy.

He had gone to a film festival in Milan where he had entered a film, but was confronted on his arrival by an official telling him his paperwork was not yet ready and to return in a couple of days.

The New Yorker, who described himself as used to having his every wish fulfilled immediately, if not sooner, went away in high dudgeon to find solace in a cafe. And, as he returned there over a couple of days to cool his heels, he began to notice what was happening around him.

I imagine him changing from short blacks to expansive lattes as he noticed groups and individuals who frequented the piazza talking, laughing, gossiping. He noticed children being part of family groups eating together. He noticed people supporting each other.

It was a salutary lesson, he wrote, noticing that here was a strength of community that was missing from his own rushed life.

And, of course, that's the point. Communities and relationships and families need time and tolerance and patience, characteristics not exhibited in the demands to rebuild the Kopu Bridge.

Later in the same trip we travelled from Lugano to Mennagio. There is only one east-west highway in this part of the world. It winds around steep and stunningly beautiful hills rising out of the lakes and squeezing through villages.

We could travel no faster than 30km/h. Often the road was officially one-way, and there were traffic lights to prove it. Elsewhere, the road was officially two-laned, but we still had to creep around blind bends.

When oncoming traffic approached, which was fairly often, both lines paused while the leading drivers worked out their strategy for passing.

At one place, the pause-and-plan technique was insufficient to pass a campervan on a corner. Everyone stopped, and locals materialised, shouting, directing, arm-waving, laughing.

Our bus edged out over the lake, the van pressed into the cliff and we crept past with millimetres to spare. I wondered how New Zealanders would react if this was on, say, State Highway 1 along the shores of Lake Taupo.

In New Zealand we agonise over our increasingly rushed lives but demand highways to enable them to go even faster. We bewail the disintegration of community values but become increasingly intolerant of others. We fret about loss of families but support economic and social systems that accentuate individualism.

We debate the need to balance our work and leisure times but buy electronic gadgets so we can read our office emails while we are out fishing. We get in a lather about law-breaking but race traffic lights and express indignation when we are caught speeding.

Like the planing hull of a boat, as we go faster our lives become shallower, looking for form rather than substance, image instead of integrity. We lose our connection with our neighbours and families, the relationships which validate them and us.

And we wonder why crime goes up and honesty goes down, why society becomes more violent and equality decreases, why we resort to name-calling and spin and don't make time to listen.

So our demands continue. When the Kopu Bridge becomes two lanes, what will the demand be then? Passing lanes all along the Kopu-Hikuai road, a 100km highway blasted up the coast to Coromandel?

Well, the wait at the lights is almost over, and the WRX is champing at the bit. I wonder whether that driver is feeling as well as I am. I've had time to relax after driving from Auckland, a stretch and a drink of water, contemplated the herd of dairy cows next door and thought that Michael Barnett really should spend time here to see that agriculture is something to be proud of, and been impressed again with the beauty of the Coromandel skyline.

There's more to life than instant gratification.

* Mike Vine, an Anglican priest and resource planner, lives in Thames.