Why the by-election in Northcote won't improve its traffic woes

by Bill Ralston / 22 May, 2018
Traffic on SH1 between Northcote and Takapuna. Photo/Getty Images

Traffic on SH1 between Northcote and Takapuna. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Northcote by-election

Auckland leaders have always made the mistake of thinking small – the rush-hour crawl between Northcote and the bridge attests to this.

Most people would find it hard to summon up much enthusiasm for next month’s Northcote by-election. It comes so soon after the general election that even many political junkies are politicked out.

But my interest perked up in April when MP Jonathan Coleman quit to get a real job. Northcote is where I grew up and went to school. My family had lived there since the time of my great-grandfather.

Over the past 60 years, the area has gone back and forth between Labour and National; its MP, until he resigned, was a National one. This was not because the voters were especially fickle; the switches reflected demographic changes that in turn followed fluctuations in the nature of Auckland itself.

Northcote went from being semi-rural to suburban in barely a decade, thanks to explosive population growth driven by the opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Many of its problems today stem from that time in 1960s.

Apart from the multi-lane Northern Motorway that charges off the bridge along the harbour edge, much of Northcote’s internal roading is still a similar width to what it was in the 1960s.

The population growth has clogged the roads as rush-hour vehicles crawl to and from the harbour bridge. Actually, the term should be “rush hours”, as the traffic seems almost as intense all day, aside from lunchtime. Transport should be the No 1 by-election issue but I doubt any of the candidates have a real policy that would solve the Shore’s traffic paralysis.

It is the same problem virtually Auckland-wide, as anyone who has tried to make it to or from Auckland Airport recently can testify. The Waterview Tunnel has made the journey from my place in Ponsonby easier, but it is reaching capacity and congestion on Auckland Airport’s land brings you to a grinding halt within view of the terminal.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford has picked up the bright idea of light rail – modern trams that will whisk me to the airport from the central city – but since it will further restrict road space for cars, it won’t help the good people of Northcote, where there is no railway, light or otherwise, get to their plane.

Anyone trying to cross Auckland will have the same complaint about traffic crawling pathetically slowly. Bus lanes exist in parts but they make little real difference. The city continues to be car-addicted because of the perception that the public transport system across the region is grossly inadequate.

Auckland’s leaders and central government have always made the mistake of thinking small. In 1956, the city axed its trams. The original plan for the Auckland Harbour Bridge called for five or six lanes, but four were built and extra lanes had to be added only 10 years later. In the 60s, Auckland Mayor Dove-Myer Robinson pushed for a rapid-rail system and consultants’ recommendations strongly supported him. But when Robert Muldoon got into power in the 1970s, he killed the idea.

Auckland is now paying the price for these failures of vision and there is little prospect of any clear insight on the city’s transport problems today.

That’s why I spend much of my time in the rural idyll of Hawke’s Bay, where two cars waiting at an intersection is called gridlock. After the by-election, I suggest the good people of Northcote might consider doing the same, because no one is going to solve Auckland’s traffic chaos any time soon.

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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