The Harbour Bridge is arguably Auckland’s most visible and well known piece of transport infrastructure and it’s 55 years old today.

Harbour Bridge

The bridge was famously built as a scaled back version of what was originally intended and for exceeding traffic projections. Instead of a 5-6 lane bridge with footpaths the government of the day scaled it back to just 4 lanes and no footpaths – something still missing to this day (although Skypath will sort that out). The decision to cut back the bridge to four lanes has often been pointed at as a massive planning failure however the addition of the clip-ons has probably resulted in the bridge having more vehicle capacity than it would have had otherwise.

Since it’s opening until the mid-2000’s traffic growth on the bridge was fairly consistent every single year but since that time vehicle volumes have dropped and then effectively flat-lined.

AHB 1960-2013

By my calculation based on the figures above the bridge has probably carried just shy of 2 billion vehicles over its lifetime and should carry it’s 2 billionth within the next 12 months.

And just in case you think they are going up again, the monthly data from the NZTA shows volumes are on the way back down again.

AHB Apr - 14

Yet while vehicle volumes have dropped in recent years the number of people crossing the bridge have continued to increase thanks to greater use of buses.  During the peak trips across the bridge have increased massively from 18% in 2004 to 41% in 2012. This is in large part due to the development of the Northern Busway.

All those vehicles (and people) being moved have made the bridge probably the most transformative single project in Auckland’s history. It converted the North Shore from a series of largely sleepy seaside villages to a part of the region with over 200,000 people (although some residents seem to still think it’s a sleepy seaside village judging by their reaction to the Unitary Plan). The image below shows what the North Shore looked like from the air in 1959 when the bridge opened compared to now.

Harbour Bridge Impact

Last year my Grandmother passed away and she was the kind of person who kept almost everything. While cleaning out her house we happened to stumble across some old newspapers and that included the special editions of both the NZ Herald and the Auckland Star. It would have been great to be able to scan these for everyone to see but it would have been difficult due to the large size of them (if someone wants to do this let me know). Both papers contain a heap of articles about the history of the project and how the bridge was built, far too many to cover off in a single post however. They also each contain a huge amount of advertising as it seems everyone business wanted to be associated with it which I guess is fairly unsurprising.

Harbour Bridge papers

Seemingly ever since the bridge was first built people have been talking about the need for an additional crossing. Amazingly despite serious discussion about another crossing popping up every few years there has yet to be a firm need for it and thankfully it seems to be one of those projects that are always needed in an ever shifting few decades. Buses have helped more and more people across the harbour while the suggestion of the bridge or its clip-ons falling into the harbour has been repeatedly dismissed by the NZTA. That is a good thing as a new crossing is expected to be hugely expensive at about $5 billion which is over twice the cost of the CRL.

By the bridges 60th birthday we will be able to finally celebrate being able to walk and cycle across the harbour thanks to Skypath.

Happy Birthday Auckland Harbour Bridge
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  1. Skypath should definitely be built by 2019 so I look forward to commemorating the bridge’s 60th by walking across it.

    1. Yup, it is time to start adding the ‘missing modes’ to this crossing. First the Active walking and Cycling ones with SkyPath. Then, eventually, the missing Rapid Transit one with twin rail tunnels under the harbour to complement this plain but effective road bridge.

      Is it our most transformational, yes, along with the CMJ, I guess, and until the CRL, more on the bridge here:

      1. Wow, what a nice feature article this is by Matt!

        Looking forward, I could not agree more with you Patrick on the missing modes, except I would prefer to skip the word ‘eventually’ and make an early start to the North-bound rail links to coincide with the CRL starting up.

        Words like ‘long term’ and ‘eventually’ frighten me in that they create an expectation of inaction which will only prolong the culture of endless private vehicles into and out of the Northern parts of Auckland. Build the two together and then we’ll really see some transformation.

        1. I say eventually because the Shore already has a not-yet-at-capacity Rapid Transit system in the Northern Busway. And one that we are yet to even fully exploit. First it needs extending both north and in the city, and with the New Network and integrated fares it will really hit its straps.

          Anyway, money is always limited and we shouldn’t overbuilt infra, like we are now with the mad rush to overbuild motorways in the RoNS.

          NW Busway should be being built now with the rest of the corridor, Bus priority everywhere, then CRL, Mangere Line, Roskill branch, then Rail to the Shore.

    2. The Harbour Bridge is now 60 years old now. Its really cool how they added beautiful lights at night which makes it stand out more now.

  2. Never understood why they don’t make it a lot more visually attractive. Most other bridges as dominant as this are painted nice colours, etc. Why is it grey?

    1. I have always thought rust would be cool, not on all the girders just around all the important structural joints. Sort of like painting fake cracks onto the Newmarket viaduct.

  3. Hi Matt, I’m happy to scan them if your able to drop them off at my office.
    I work at Mercer and Mercer architects, we share an office with Cook Sargisson and Pirie Architects, we have an A1 scanner that may be suitable.

  4. Although I’d love it to be true, I’m not sure the graph really supports that traffic is declining on the harbour bridge. What matters when it comes to traffic are the peaks, and the last seasonal peak (in around Oct / Nov 2013) was the highest since 2007. I suspect there’s a little bit too much variability there for a 12 month average to be particularly useful.

    1. not sure whether Matt meant to suggest it’s “declining”, just that the recent trend is down. I suspect we’ll see harbour bridge traffic volumes remain more or less flat going forward, as any traffic growth is offset by people shifting to WRR when Waterview opens.

  5. There were some interesting compromises here. Because of a desire to keep the upper harbour free for large commercial shipping, the bridge was built high and steep, foreclosing rail. It was also overengineered, which ended up being a very good thing once the clip-ons were added, and allows its service life to be extended indefinitely (with appropriate weight limits for trucks).

    I speculate, but I wonder how much of what you see in 1959 was built in anticipation of the bridge. It would make a degree of sense to start on residential and commercial before its construction.

    1. The height was perhaps the biggest mistake. Containerisation and increases in ship size couldn’t be predicted but the Pollen Island docks were never going to be a starter. As you note that prevented rail as an option. The design load as I understand it was a column of main battle tanks showing its cold war roots. And I dont think box girders had been invented at that point at least not the size used for the clip-ons so a truss was the answer.

        1. Fortuitous if you are a sailor but probably not worth building a bridge at that height for. A more likely outcome would have been a bridge like Tauranga.

      1. Rail wasn’t an option anyway, because it would have required a whole lot of new rail that nobody could afford, and we already had a main north line anyway.

        Recall that there wasn’t really much railway transit in Auckland anyway, it was all trams and ferry. The question is whether anyone proposed a tram line over the bridge (which it could easily take) and if those ideas got scarpered with the narrowing along with the footpaths.

        I work out not long ago that as a proportion of GDP the initial harbour bridge cost some seven billion dollars in today’s money. You can see why they were hesitant!

        1. Of course the trams were gone by 1955 so maybe they were never in the mix.

          If Len wants to build light rail, he would be better to build a SkyTrain (like in Vancouver) across the bridge from Aotea Square and up the busway (but again post-CRL). The busway has already proofed the demand and we hear a lot of complaints about overcrowding on buses. Light rail would massively increase the capacity and speed if it was grade separated.

          Biggest problem would be what to do while the buses were unable to use the busway. I doubt the North Share could operate without the Northern Busway now.

        2. I have thought about this quite a bit. I think that we would have to lay the tunnels through to Akoranga before we even started on the busway. The bit from Smales to Akoranga wouldn’t be too hard as you could just direct buses down the motorway to Akoranga with a bus lane the whole way, and ensure that trains were leaving from just South of Akoranga enforcing a transfer at that station. Smales to Sunnynook is a fair bit harder as there is no access to the busway until you get up to constellation. We would probably need to skip Sunnynook station and go back to just using the motorway shoulder lanes in the mean time. With trains running from Smales to the city. Once track got to sunnynook you could start running trains from there and put buses from Constellation down Sycamore Dr, and obviously once you get to constellation it isn’t too much of an issue. Once you get to constellation you have to just put the buses back on the motorway and hope for the best as that section is a shocker and then get your rail tracks in. Not sure how they are going to handle the busway from Silverdale as the current design means we will have to duplicate the bridge at Albany Station.

          The most important thing will be ensuring that any preliminary work is completely finished before the busway closes so that all that has to be done is to lay tracks straight onto the roadway. If we are going for overhead traction that can all be built first, soundproofing or grounding can all be done so that it is literally lay the tracks, run trains.

        3. Why is it assumed as a matter of course that a railway or light rail would necessarily follow the existing path of the Northern motorway and/or the Busway?

          Could a case not be made for tunnelling across to Devonport instead then running tracks up Lake Rd to Takapuna and onwards through all the town centres to Torbay?

        4. +1 to Patrick. Devonport Peninsula would have very good PT with some ferry improvements and a tram up lake road. Rail up the busway route would allow a far larger catchment and lower cost with the potential to add a route up Onewa Road and Takapuna later.

      2. There are two ship docks on the upper harbour side of the bridge, Chelsea and Kauri Point. I believe the biggest ships that currently use those docks are the sugar delivery ship and HMNZS Canterbury. The bridge must provide enough clearance for these two vessels.

        1. If they had known that the only ships going under were for Chelsea and Kauri Point then they never would have built it that high. They would have required those docks to close and serviced Chelsea by truck until it shifted somewhere else and probably moved the munitions. The bridge was built specifically to serve a new port at Pollen Island which will never be built. It is a good example of how difficult it is to predict what will happen in 50 years time. Had Pollen Island been built it would have closed by now because of changes in shipping.

        2. Yes this was the the case. And way way cheaper to help Chelsea to move and build a lower bridge than to build so high for one user…. And indeed so true about prediction. Government still predicting we’ll be driving everywhere this century at the same levels as last century. That is, at least, contestable.

        3. Containerised transport was a hugely disruptive technology largely unpredicted at the time. I suspect that advances in robotics and automation will apply the same scale of disruption in the next 50 years – though in what ways, I do not know.

          (I do think that it will make rail freight more attractive for some time, as roboticised containerised rail operates in a completely uncontested environment with predictable behaviour, unlike road transport. Whether Kiwirail are a sufficiently advanced organisation to lead this change I can’t say.)

  6. Arthur Grimes did a good paper on the effect of the Harbour Bridge on the growth of the North Shore – noted that population has increased over 10x since 1959, but that the original growth projections simply didn’t anticipate this degree of land use change. Patrick as I recall did a post on this very issue a while ago – truly transformational projects like the AHB catalyse huge land use changes.

    Some obvious lessons for the CRL debate – (1) land use can’t be ignored as a factor in economic evaluation; and (2) that setting arbitrary triggers for when a project is ‘needed’ is silly. Growth simply cannot precede the infrastructure that enables it. I’m sure Gerry has been quoted as using this line of argument to justify certain RoNS.

    1. Requiring a 25% increase in employment for CRL is untenable. Infrastructure doesn’t create growth but it can be a bottleneck to growth. The CBD already suffers from access problems with capacity issues at Britomart, limits to the number of buses and limits to the number of cars that can get in. To get 25% more jobs is going to require a hell of a lot more people to live in the CBD, yet CRL will be of least benefit to them. What is Brownlee thinking? Presumably it is just a ploy to look supportive while making sure no money gets spent.

      1. Disagree that the CRL will not benefit city dwellers, why on earth not? Do city dwellers have no movement needs? Making the mistake of thinking that the CRL is only about moving from dormitory suburb to urban employment? There already is movement the other way, and of course not just for employment. And of course, critically the CRL enables so much better cross town movements, even relatively micro ones, like Britomart to K’Rd, Aotea to Parnell, Newtown to and from all of the above. But also don’t city dwellers want to go to Eden Park, or Middlemore hospital, or New Lynn or Sylvia Park shops. Newmarket? Their kids go to various schools? MIT?

        Agree it’s just a ploy, but it also makes the lazy [and common] assumption that the CRL doesn’t support other centres as well as the big one in the middle, which of course it does, by linking them so much better together and to that mother of them all.

        ‘Infrastructure doesn’t create growth but it can be a bottleneck to growth.’ Well infrastructure can also unlock bottlenecks, for example the Harbour Bridge certainly did. And Puford to Wellesford won’t; ‘cos there isn’t one.

        The CRL will:

      2. CRL is going to be a pretty massive benefit to people living in the CBD like my flatmate and I. He works in Penrose and catches the train to work, we both go all over the city for leisure, the frequency and access boosts will be amazing.

  7. Concerning the second harbour road crossing:

    These days the road lobby’s argument for such a project usually runs:
    1. ‘We acknowledge the importance of public transport [we know we have to say this to appear up-to-date]…’
    2. ‘… but in our dispersed city most trips are unsuitable for public transport…’
    3. ‘… so we still need [insert name of the current multi-billion dollar road project which is needed to really, truly, finally complete the major road system]’

    To counter point 2: $5 billion for a second road crossing should be considered against the cost of creating a seriously ‘anytime, anywhere’ congestion-free public transport service from North Shore origins to dispersed destinations that would make the new crossing unnecessary.

    At usual discount rates (say 7% over 20 years), a $5 billion capital expense is equivalent to about $1 million per day. That’s about the same as the entire running cost of the present city-wide public transport service** You could create a lot of anytime, anywhere frequent public transport with that sort of money.

    This just points up the fantastic waste of spending billions to move single occupant cars in the place where infrastructure costs are at their highest, without first doing all you can to use the existing infrastructure most efficiently (by expanding the bus service on the existing bridge).

    ** $297 million at AT 2013 annual report p80 (I hope this is the relevant figure, but I’m not an expert on AT annual reports)

      1. That’s 1 isn’t it? But 4. Something about regional development through freight movements to some place hundreds of kms from the end of the road in question’.

  8. It would be great if someone, Council or something, actually funded to light up the harbor bridge! That way it could become more iconic.
    You could even match it up with the colours that the Sky Tower uses…..maybe someone should have a chat to Sky City or the Council concerning this.
    I think it would look amazing!

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