‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’

-William Morris 1880

Because we argue here at ATB that it is time to rebalance our spending priorities away from always assuming that road building is the best or only answer to our transport problems, especially for those caused by too much traffic in cities, we often get accused of all sorts of emotional things like being ‘car haters’. This is, of course, just a bit of silly name calling and a way of venting frustration in the absence of any kind of real argument or information against our proposals and positions.

Cars can be great, vehicles of all kinds are extremely useful, and are often the best tool for the job. Especially for dispersed populations and away from concentrations of people. They are, after all, just machines, they have no inherent value that always applies. Some are better than others, in different ways, by various often contradictory measures, and the same one can be both a boon or a curse in different contexts, and so on. But they are not always equally welcome, especially in quantity, and especially on city streets. In this sense they can be considered to be analogous to problem plants: What is a weed, but a perfectly good plant in the wrong place?

So in this post I want to discuss a recent road project that I think is absolutely the right answer to a problem of auto-domination, a road project that does take cars away from where they are not wanted. But I don’t want to discuss it just because of its usefulness. But also because it’s beautiful:


The Lower Hatea River Bridge or Te Matau ā Pohe; Pohe’s fish hook. Over the Hatea River, Whangarei.

Before looking at more images let’s see where it is and what it does:


It crosses the river east of the city just before it widens, underlined in red above. The primary purpose of the bridge is to enable vehicles to bypass the Whangarei CBD to and from the Heads and the Airport to the east. Previously all traffic on this side of the river was funnelled through the centre of town and right through the main commercial district and severing it from the newly redeveloped Town Basin:

Whangarei CBD

It’s a little early to see how the bypass is performing but the projections are for a reduction in 8-10k traffic movements across the old bridge per day- About a third of the total. Hopefully this reduction materialises and that the Council takes the opportunity to scale down some of that massive intersection above and improve the cycling and walking links between the Town Basin and the Town itself.

At least the new Bridge and its approaches have been built with the Active modes in mind; both sides have really wide protected paths and these loop under the bridge down by the water at least on the western side [they were still finishing the siteworks when I was there so I’m not sure about under the other side]. You can see the paths here with the bridge in the open position:


Yes. That’s another way that this is a multimodal project. It opens to let taller vessels through to the Town Basin:


Furthermore this makes the primary visual gesture of the structure -the fish hooks- so much better; they are not mere ornament but provide the essential service of balancing the bascule, the rocking section of the bridge, through its movement. Beautiful and useful.


The balancing act the bridge performs in its movements is extremely satisfying; architect Martin Knight of Knight Architects in the UK has achieved that very tricky thing; something apparently simple but extremely sophisticated. The clients: Whangarei District Council and NZTA Northland and Auckland are also to be congratulated.

After all, from some angles, it might be fair to ask what have they been smoking up there? Is this NZTA’s answer to Elon Musk?
At rest in the mist it’s elegant and poised. At night up close it’s like something out of scifi:
Beauty is not in the last lick of paint, nor some gratuitous addition to a quotidian structure in search of ‘iconic’ status. It is in the very heart of all good things. Aesthetics is everything.
So it is very heartening to see a road project with ambition beyond the cheapest post-and-beam structure and a whole lot of gardening as ‘mitigation’. To quote another Victorian:
‘When we build, let us think that we build forever’
-John Ruskin 1849


photographs © patrick reynolds 2013

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  1. A planning-(taking pressure of the main city roads for other things), architectural, civil engineering, and even a governance triumph. What more can you say apart from that it can be done and no transport modes really disadvantaged. I think anyone involved would be very proud with this one as a massive change towards a better city of theirs and even the architect would come back to it in future years I bet.

    1. To be fair there have been a few examples recently of imaginative bridge design around Auckland. Clark’s Lane on the new Upper Harbour motorway or Dilworth Avenue at Newmarket.

      However, I take your point. Some imagination and innovation from the powers that be regarding transport planning would be very welcome.

  2. Now, as long as they utilise the opportunity of de-laning some downtown roads due to the reduced traffic flows it will be a success. Not doing this will just mean it’s another, albeit very nice, bridge.

  3. Nice photos. I doubt that there is any political will up there at the moment to reduce traffic lanes around the old roads, particularly since they were upgraded fairly recently. It’s such a shame that in all the time since they upgraded that intersection, they’ve never found a more productive use for the land around it other than car parking. The poor PT in Whangarei probably has something to do with this.

  4. Great looking bridge. Shows what a difference great design can do.

    Whangarei should in theory have a lot of potential. Recent posts talk about what to do wi POAL (more it to Whangarei) and congestion (in part caused by trucks going to and from POAL). Whangarei is the solution to a lot of Aucklands problems – I’m sure a tlot of aucklanders would move to thir cheaper houses if the jobs were there to take advantage of the better weather, more open space and beautiful landscapes of the North.

    That aerial pic of the CBD is shocking – how much prime riverside land is road or Carpark.

      1. Thanks for that; looks very good. I certainly could have done with that proposed foot bridge when I was shooting the images above!

        Whangarei like all of NZ’s smaller towns and cities would benefit hugely from improved urban design and de-caring, the principals are the same as for Auckland but the tools and the scale will be different. Investment in place. Reconnection with waterfronts, whether riverine or harbourside, are absolutely critical. And connecting them back to urban centres for people to linger in, and not just facilitating ways for people to speed by in vehicles, has proven to be money in the bank the world over.

        The bypass above is of course an investment that is actually in Northland for Northland, not a vast duplication of a highway in the Auckland countryside. Better to invest in making a place more worth visiting than to blow 2billion shaving a few minutes off any journeys already heading there.

        Place is where the value is, movement investment is simply a means to an end.

        I hope your optimism about Whangarei works out; good climate, cheaper housing AND better quality of place….

        1. Whangarei probably has the potential to become another Tauranga. A large retirement home, and a booming economy, but based on narrow primary industries.
          Would be much better for Whangarei that what it is now, but still wouldn’t provide enough jobs to attract many working age Aucklanders away.
          Many retirees from Auckland could cash up and move there, leaving their housing behind to redevelop free of NIMBY objections.

        2. Needs a decent tertiary institution right in town (or out at Ruakaka. Living and studying near a stunning white sand beach)

    1. Because that is the way we should plan our transport, eh? Fear and the status quo.

      If your city’s economy depends on a few people dropping into a fish & chip shop, then you are screwed anyway. Yes, some pass-by businesses will suffer. Others elsewhere will gain. That is life. Having a business doesn’t give you a right to expect others to keep it profitable.

    2. Absolutely none. What on earth makes you think through traffic helps local businesses?

      Maybe gas stations will consider moving with the traffic from downtown, hardly a net loss. And an improvement to place quality in the centre.

    3. They can always put in some cycle paths as they have been shown to substantially increase revenue for businesses, especially when they replace parking and decrease road capacity. A lesson Ponsonby will soon have brought home (cant wait!!):

      1. Cycle paths and cycle boulevards right through and around Whangarei? Oh what an idea. I had my worst bike accident in Whangarei 22 years ago. I got hit by a car in a 70 km/h area after falling off in the wake of a truck-trailer unit. Damn lucky I’m still here.

        1. Yes, I know, way too radical for rural NZ. Better to keep on with the policies of the last 60 years that are slowly strangling them to death and pushing out the young people.

          It will just attract a lot of hippies and losers who ride bikes and use PT anyway, eh Bryce?

        2. Yeah. We’ve got places for people like ‘them’. Portland, Amsterdam, Copenhagen……..(none of which are in NZ).

    4. Ari, probably quite a few, especially the ones that depend on passing vehicles.

      But the fact that some business move out – and new (different) businesses move in – is an intended outcome of this sort of transformative project. Afterall, it would be a strange world indeed if Council were to build the bypass, invest in upgrading streets downtown, and yet the panel beater was expected to remain in the central city.

    5. “I wonder how many businesses will go under because of the diversion.”

      And I wonder how many family and pedestrian friendly businesses on Hobson Street went under when it was turned into the main culvert draining into the Southern motorway.

  5. Starnius/Patrick, I’m talking about real people’s lives and reality, not some theoretical ideal world. I am also talking about a small town, not a suburb of a large city. I don’t know if you guys got the memo but small town NZ is dying. Long term, that is a major strategic issue for NZ. I just know that these sorts of diversions hit small towns really hard.

    1. As a former resident of Whangarei, who moved back to Auckland 19 years ago, I feel somewhat qualified to speak on this. Generally, smart kids in Whangarei go to uni somewhere else in NZ and then don’t come back to Whangarei. The area that has been mentioned ,along the basin, used to hold nothing but fishing boats and yachts. The surrounding area was pretty much industrial or car yards (sound familiar – GNR). There is pretty much no accommodation in the town centre area other than the Avenues. The arterial that runs between the town basin and the rest of the town centre has created a severance. Once the area is de-car’ed to an extent (not a 4 lane arterial), the whole area will be nicer. Some mixed use accommodation and business would do wonders for the area. Whangarei must urbanise if it is to hold on to it’s young, smart residents (generalisation here as there are still young, smart people in Whangarei – just not enough). This bridge, and the accompanying town basin rebuild, could do wonders for the town.

    2. “I just know that these sorts of diversions hit small towns really hard.”

      So allowing the CBD roads to remain a rat run for through traffic will bring it bouncing back to life….?

    3. Have you been to Whangarei? It’s bigger than Invercargill, small towns are 10-20% of Whangarei’s size.

      Anyway, all the businesses in the CBD are basically retail, it’s very walkable thanks to being flat and most roads being 2 lanes and a sensible mix of parking and pedestrian spaces. The main shopping street is car free, most street parking is 60-120m max with parking on the edges or 1 parking building in the centre for longer periods.

      It’s a destination in themselves. One might argue that people living on the Onerahi side of the river are now closer to the Okara business park with the Warehouse and Briscoes etc, and that might change where people shop but the Cameron St Mall and the surrounding streets is a nicer shopping experience and better range of shops. But the existing road layout was upgraded so it could act as a funnel to get to places other than the CBD

    4. So we should use tax payer money to artificially boost small towns? If they are dying that is often because the industry they were built on has died.

      Why would subsidise a dying business model – small towns? If young people arent interested in living there then should we force them too.

      I cant see any way to arrest that decline that doesnt involve artificial stimulus. We are a highly urbanised country and we just have to accept that. This rural myth we perpetuate about ourselves is just holding us back.

      1. As per most towns, transport spending is quite high and the more sprawl that Whangarei allows, the more they have to spend on road building and maintenance. The city would do well to have a plan in place to limit the amount of sprawl. Having 30 houses on lifestyle blocks, down a 3 km piece of road, will put the rates into negative territory. The more of this they do, the worse off the city will be. I’ve just had a quick skim of the WDC plan and it seems they are happy for sprawl. This matters even more in small towns than a city like Auckland. These towns need to contract or, at least, not expand.

  6. Ari it seems you are confusing this bypass, which takes through traffic from the retail CBD to the industrial area within the same city with this: http://greaterakl.wpengine.com/2012/11/09/tauranga-eastern-link-another-white-elephant-motorway/
    Which takes traffic away from a small town entirely. This RoNS will be a killer for Te Puke, I agree.

    But this local road project will most likely be nothing but positive for retail on its old route, as it will reduce the auto-domination of the shopping and dinning precincts as well as being stimulative for car focused businesses on the new route, such as gas stations etc. People heading form the Heads/Airport/ area to SH1 either north or south were not likely to be doing impulse purchases in the CBD on their way, and of course if they do need to pick something up on route not only can they still do so but it will be easier to now that all those other through routers are not clogging the city streets.

    For Te Puke? Another RoNS fail.

    1. It’s hard to know in a way. Much like pokeno bypassing it turns does stuff up the likes of the icecream shop and the meat pie joint but then I don’t know if this job was really for long distance travelers.

      Of course if you look at Hamilton. For some reason they let all the retail shops relocate to Te Rapa which has made a serious wound to the CBD. I could see a simpler issue here with shops wanting to move to where it’s easier to get customers.

      1. It doesn’t effect north/south through travel at all (which goes nowhere near the CBD), and the only the only reason you’d go across the river/harbour now is to get to a suburb of Whangarei or holiday home further out. Even then it’s only east/south traffic commuter that will shift, there still will be plenty going west or north from the suburbs.

    1. I don’t like the look of it much it seems too bulky or it needed 2 structures to balance it out.
      And the road from Pohe Island is not on the same level with it and it doesn’t follow a nice curve. Are there going to be plantings on the side?

  7. I live and do business in Whangarei – it’s a fantastic place! The bridge won’t have a negative effect on businesses here and it really helps relieve traffic congestion. Although born and bred here I have lived and travelled extensively overseas and Northland is an outstanding place to call home – it’s New Zealand’s best kept secret when it comes to lifestyle, and yet oh so close to our largest metropolis – with the Puhoi to Warkworth highway project close to getting underway it will be even closer. Our local Council has big plans for the area around the bridge and Town Basin. A loop walkway circuit is planned to link the bridge and our beautiful Town Basin area and there is a big push to build a Hundertwasser Art Museum which would be unique in the world. It won’t be long before we see new accommodation and tourist operators take advantage of these attractions. More population will bring more jobs. Beautiful unspoiled beaches, bays, coves, islands, world-class diving, surfing, fishing, sailing, tramping, mountain biking, native forests, art, culture, food – what more could you ask for? AND you can live at the beach and be only 20 minutes from work (if you don’t work from home – we have Ultrafast Broadband too!) Housing and commercial land is readily available and far more affordable than Auckland and it’s a great place to do business. We’ve seen some real progress in Whangarei lately and the new bridge is awesome – no traffic jams here….

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