“Change is the law of life and those who only look to the past or present are certain to miss the future”


Life is nothing but change, and cities being concentrations of human life manifest this fact in their physical fabric: They are constantly changing, always incrementally, sometimes abruptly. Positively and negatively. Investment versus entropy. Governments, local and central, are charged with understanding the forces at work behind this law of life and responding wisely with our taxes to attempt to maximise the potential positive outcomes within this reality for all citizens.

Dresden 1945: Catastrophic change

There is plenty of evidence that suggests there is a need for substantial change in transport infrastructure investment now in Auckland. This evidence is broad based and essentially adds up to the fact that the conditions that set the policy of the last 60 years no longer hold:

  • It is clear that demand growth is shifting away from driving towards the Transit and Active modes
  • It is clear that spatial arrangements are shifting including a substantial revaluing of the centre
  • It is clear that demographics of the city are changing to smaller households and denser communities
  • It is clear that the city’s growth path is continuing; Auckland now is already city sized and getting bigger
  • It is clear that environmental and geographical constrains are tightening; resource constraints in Transport sector ever more pressing
  • It is clear that the urban motorway programme of the previous era is nearing completion; we are in a new phase
  • It is clear that newer generations just don’t share the older ones’ ideas of what is important in urban form and how to move

It is in this context that we have developed our Congestion Free Network summarised here.

However while there is clear evidence that we live in a period of discontinuity from the previous era this does not mean that what was built up during this era should be abandoned or not maintained. Quite the contrary in fact. One of the primary aims of shifting our capital investments away from the urban highway network is to build up the complementary networks to such an effective and attractive level that will keep the highways functioning well and with more efficiency. And in this our programme is not only low risk and high value but also very different from the late 20th Century revolution that it builds on. If there is one lesson to learn from the last great shift in transport investment in Auckland it is to be sure to keep what you already have and build on it; not to disregard the last system in order to focus totally on the next one.

Let’s have a look back.

The decision last century to invest in a system of urban highways for Auckland became over time a total commitment. We not only invested nearly every penny of new investment into this system starving any alternatives we also actually removed existing alternatives.

Here is a view of the leafy and desirable old suburbs of the Auckland Isthmus:

Old 'tram built' suburbs of Auckland, from Mt Eden
Old ‘tram built’ suburbs of Auckland, from Mt Eden

And here is a map of the system that made this urban form:

Auckland Isthmus tramlines

After the second world war Auckland faced the three interrelated problems. It was growing, there had been little investment in infrastructure for decades, and it lacked financial resources. To that can be added that capital investment was dependent on a suspicious government that faced, as ever, competing demands. One critical area that this came to a head was our electric tram system. While by any measure it was a huge success, carrying huge numbers of people and at around a net operating profit, it was in desperate need of catch up investment both in the machines themselves and extension to new areas.

In the context of the times the car offered a way out of this problem. There were very few of them in the 1950s, and while their uptake was expected to grow this was also expected to remain manageable. It was argued that buses could replace the trams with the advantage of operating without fixed routes and be more easily extended to new areas and at lower capital cost to public finances. All true. But really this was a way to give Auckland’s relatively narrow roads over completely to private vehicles, as no priority was allowed for the tram-replacing buses. Contrast with Melbourne: where they not only kept the more appealing trams but took advantage of wide boulevards allowing separation of trams and traffic on many routes, plus tram priority systems at intersections where they are mixed.

Relying on the car could be rationalised as cheaper too, simply because the machine and fuel costs were privatised, and that petrol taxes were to be the source of road funding. Lost in the reasoning was the fact total reliance on driving is the most expensive way of ordering a city’s movement. So while the car/road system had a good funding mechanism [fuel excise] this does not mean it is the best system economically, and this is still true today . It would require ever more enormous sums and in fact add to the ratepayer burden and not relieve it as road taxes have never covered all road costs. Let alone other burdens of this system like parking and the loss of rateable land etc.

And motorways are subject to the laws of inverse success over time: they are best when they’re new, they never get better as they attract more users. Below, rural Penrose with new motorway 1963- nice flow.

Road traffic, new Southern Motorway, Penrose, Auckland. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-59290-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23080156
Road traffic, new Southern Motorway, Penrose, Auckland. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-59290-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23080156

Part of the world view of Modernism was a faith in the completely fresh start: The Brave New World. This is evident in art movements, new philosophies, individual building projects, but also at the urban planning level. That there was a huge desire for new beginings is not surprising after the experience of the first half of the century with two extremely destructive world wars and a devastating Depression. Auckland, although it didn’t come out of the war with whole areas of the city wiped clear by bombing it did have plenty of proximate bare land, and in the city itself the buildings and structures of the colonial era were now ageing and dated compared to what seemed possible in the new American-style future. It was ripe for this ideology of ‘rip it up and start again’.

We took our lead from the zeitgeist, and the zeitgeist was all California [well, the Autobahn, actually, but no one was admitting that].

Furthermore the beginning of this new project coincided with a rise in prosperity, price controls being lifted from private car sales, and the price of crude oil fell every year from 1947-1970 in real terms. Driving boomed in New Zealand as it did all across the western world and use of the new bus network declined proportionately. And then fell into a downward cycle of falling investment, declining quality of service, and uptake. The buses were never as accepted as much as the trams and nor could they ever command the control of the road as well either.

So when in 1976 Prime Minister Robert Muldoon exploited the divisions in the many local authorities in Auckland to kill Auckland Mayor Robinson’s ‘Robbie’s Rapid Rail’ Auckland was committed, by central government, to a bold ‘double-down’ on an urban motorway centred road only transport network.

What had began as a just part of the city’s movement systems as advised by North American consultants in the 1960s became an extreme and monotonal driving-only all-in bet. Bold, ambitious, and in terms of the communities and places in its path; pitiless. All directed by central government, with local concerns overruled.


Whole areas of the city have never recovered from the burden of hosting this land hungry and severing system; in the most affected areas land value still remain low and land use poor. They have been sacrificed for the convenience of those from other, further out parts of the new city. Around 50 000 people were relocated and 15 000 buildings removed. This was a revolution, with winners and losers.

Newton then and now

Meanwhile investment in complementary systems froze. The bus network was stuck in aspic; even though it began carrying ever more people from the mid 1990s as the city grew and began to exhibit the kind of urban realities that make driving less optimal for more and more citizens. Each time the rail network won hard fought and tiny investments; second hand trains from Perth, Britomart Station, ridership leapt in response. But still no meaningful investment in extending these parts of systems into an actual Rapid Transit Network has been able to be wrestled from successive governments this century. Although important steps towards such a system were undertaken first by the last Labour led government by funding Project Dart, a long overdue upgrade of the rail network, and the construction of the Northern Busway, and the current National led government by enabling electrification to follow through a mixture of grants and loans to Auckland Transport. And, critically, AT and AC’s multi year overhaul of the bus system and introduction of the integrated ticketing.

Yet the future still looks no different, in fact central government’s programme is one of an aggressive return to the ‘revolution’ of the late 20th Century with no new Public Transit infrastructure funding at all, just enough to contribute to operate what’s already there: [chart of spending categories for the whole country 2015-2025]

2015 GPS - Spending graph
Proposed transport spending distribution in millions.

Yet despite the huge sums spent on more lane space the growth in driving has stalled, in contrast to uptake in the underfunded Transit mode: [VKT: Vehicle Kilometres Travelled].

VKT vs PT Trips per Captia 4

So it is very hard to understand this policy in terms of evidence, is its based on a nostalgia for the driving boom years of last century?, or perhaps it is simply an inability of our institutions to understand change and adapt to it?, or worse are the huge sums of public money in this sector subject to capture and control by special interests?: Big Trucking, Civil Construction, Consultants and Financiers, and Land Development Interests?

It is time to build balance into our city’s movement options and to do this we need a change in where spending is directed. And properly understood this is not another revolution but rather a return to moderation and balance and away from the current orthodoxy which is lopsided in the extreme. The current policy of investing so disproportionately in the driving mode is a revolutionary policy, but not seen as such because it has become an orthodoxy. We shouldn’t be surprised with its extremity as it is a 20th Century programme, from that age of extremes and extreme ideologies. Which while at times exhilarating, it also meant much was lost, like Auckland’s tram network.

Our position is that this kind of lurch is not what Auckland needs now but instead we should build on what we have by adding to the underdeveloped Active and Transit modes while maintaining and more efficiently utilising the mature driving resource.

Green GPS Funding graph

Above is a comparison of the proposed Green Party and National Party transport policies [for the whole country]. Note that the major difference is about what to build next, and that both plan to maintain current assets. We can change from extremity to balance without losing what we have. And it is long overdue:

Robbie's Rapid Rail MW

by Architect, Cartoonist, and National Treasure: Malcolm Walker

Share this


  1. “They have been sacrificed for the convenience of those from other, further out parts of the new city” – the new motorways displaced about 10% of Auckland’s population into those further out parts, thus adding to their own traffic. Remarkable that so many people were displaced with no significant opposition. London’s motorway box resulted in ‘homes before roads’ councillors taking over the council. Why has this never happened in Auckland?

    1. For most of the late 20th century Auckland’s local government was dominated by the Remuera elite. The Orakei Local Board is still in denial about this having changed.

      What was the one motorway that community opposition really did kill off? The one that affected this elite.

  2. The hostility to public transport alternatives is relentless and continuing. I refer to the recently announced idea of rebuilding the Wynyard lifting bridge with a structure strong enough to support light rail.

    In no time at all the letters started showing up in the Herald dismissing the plan as a pointless, unnecessary waste of ratepayers money.

    I wonder, sometimes, if these people have a sheaf of letters already composed, watching and waiting for the first mention of a public transport initiative in any of the media, ready to lob them into the discussion and steer the public discourse before people have had time to think about the issues.

  3. Great post, Patrick. Nice potted history. Having grown up while it was going on I forget that few Aucklanders today remember Grafton Gully without a Motorway. However, by the same token, I remember my “Halleujah” when it finally opened and I could bypass Symonds St to get direct to Princes St & the University from the south. However, you are right and it’s time to luff up, go about and take the other tack. And as in that sailing analogy there is that moment of risk when you are head on into the wind and the wrong gust or too little momentum can push you back you back onto your old course. Take heart and stay the course and keep selling the story because it’s the voices of support that will provide the momentum for success.

  4. We certainly need to change the mindset in Auckland and the blindness of the National Government in not recognising the trends and evidence that are now clearly acknowledged, not only in NZ, but also in most western countries. As a conservative voter I am very sad that the transport issue has been politicised into left and right ideologies when it should be about what is best for Auckland and for the rest of the country. The amounts of money being wastefully tipped into a number of the RoNs projects is huge and a better allocation of funds would certainly make for a more liveable city and a richer country.
    Great post Patrick and again thank you Transport Blog hosts for the fantastic analysis work you regularly undertake.

    1. Not much of a surprise there – poorer people can afford to live in the one part of the city that does not prohibit intensified housing. As noted here before “slums of the future” is an hysterical statement and plain wrong when it comes to well located housing in a city with a good economy (ie not Detroit). Alan Davies explains it best:


    2. The study is somewhat flawed in that it uses car ownership or lack thereof as a measure of poverty. As someone who lives without a car in the central city, it’s clearly a ridiculous assumption, as my ability to get around without one has all sorts of financial benefits for myself, not to mention health benefits.

      1. The academics / analysts that create NZDep every 5 years are well aware that the car ownership measure is becoming problematic, but at this point, car ownership remains correlated with an absence of deprivation and remains a contributor the the index. They acknowledge that in central Auckland and Wellington in particular, lack of car ownership may be a choice of the relatively affluent, but the numbers are not so great yet for it to be removed from the methodology.

        1. Also the weighting of car ownership in the index is relatively low. From memory it’s ranked maybe #9 of the 10 contributing measures.

  5. A minor point- the Auckland Rapid Transit Scheme- AKA “Robbie’s Rapid Rail” was cancelled by the Muldoon National Government in 1976 not 1972. The ART scheme report was released by the combined NZ Railways/ Ministry of Works/ ARA project team in 1974 and the then Labour Government agreed to fund the capital costs of the scheme if the Auckland region councils would fund the operating subsidy. In the usual Auckland local government manner, there was no agreement reached before the 1975 election and the incoming National government killed the project. Another opportunity missed…

  6. I wonder if the Greens have got it right, I agree with the majority of the program but:
    I feel that there does need to be a greater level of investment in the improvement of regional roads and maybe a higher level of state highway maintenance than is currently in train.
    I also question whether we should retain the increased vehicle mass as our roads are still not ready for the change. At this stage the road designations need to be formally specified and the vehicles easily identifiable so that these over loading vehicles stand out when they are on the wrong type of road/street. The regional roads and state highways need a fairly long lead time for this change. Especially when you consider the rapid deterioration in our main roads and streets.

    1. I don’t know if it is right either but to be fair they are wanting to put more money into regional roads than National and to put the same into maintenance as National.

      So an improvement on what National is offering from your point of view, isn’t it?

    2. Your only “but” is the fact that they should be proposing spending more on regional roads, when they ARE proposing to spend more than National?

  7. Does anyone know the basis of the claim 50,000 people lost their home? I am sure that would have been on the News. Presumably it relates to the entire motorway and not the CMJ which I think takes up somewhere around 1/2 a square km. Otherwise Newton must have been more dense than Manila!

      1. Thanks, that’s a fascinating read:

        “In the post-war decades of the 1950s to 1970s, the inner city of Auckland
        was in demographic decline, and this applied equally to the CBD and the
        suburbs surrounding it. By the late 1980s, this process of de-urbanisation
        had reached its nadir when the inner city had about half of the population it
        had had in 1945.”

        This decline while not only caused by the massive destruction that the motorway build brought but does exactly correlate to it. And, while the ‘flight to the suburbs’ was a consistent western phenomenon through this period places that didn’t flatten their old inner city and suburbs did not have such a drastic loss of population in those areas. Vancouver for example.

      2. Ok but that doesn’t show a 50,000 person decline it shows 8000 in the CBD, 6000 in Newton, 2500 in Ponsonby, 2000 in Grey Lynn. Total decline of 18,500!. Now some of that had to be the 1/2 sqkm of CMJ but some was probably also the demolition of houses to build offices, warehouses tertiary campuses and some might even have simply been the result of smaller family sizes since 1945.

        1. It’s not my number, but which ever way you slice it a 50% reduction is a catastrophe. And an ongoing catastrophe evident to this day from Freeman’s Bay through K Rd [previously Auckland’s premier shopping district] all of Newton out to the useless Dominion Rd interchange and down Khyber Pass. These are still ruined low value disaster zones; fucked by motorway engineering and the centralised government planning that decreed it. Oh and a huge loss of rateable income for the people of Auckland to use to improve their city.

          1. Tried to delete my last sentence but the edit time had expired. Sorry. But my point is a good part of the decline in population was to allow growth in jobs in the inner areas. Maybe that was a result of the motorways improving accessibility, but that was a good thing not a bad one. It is not all because of the space needed to accommodate a motorway system. CMJ was only one of the things going on in those areas. And I say the benefits outweigh the costs. They chose accessibility for many people over a few poorly built old houses. As a result people can live in one of the most liveable cities in the world with a back yard rather than cheek by jowl in the hollow of Newton.

          2. I see the problem as NZ’s continual gravitation to low-rent solutions. There is one of those classic 1950s movie clips about the CMJ linked somewhere on this blog, and it says they will tunnel it through the Symonds St ridge. Of course they back-tracked on that plan, for cost reasons I presume, and we got the severance we have now, as well as more displacement. Even with the alignment chosen, they could have done it in a way that impacted the city much less.

          3. Exactly the opposite has occurred. The “ruined low value disaster zones” earn the council double the rateable income per square metre of land compared to fashionabl Ponsonby, based on these random examples –
            15 Richmond Rd, Ponsonby, villa on 366m2, CV $1.1m, rates $4,220, $11.53/m2
            25 Rendall Pl, Eden Terrace, apartment on 250m2, CV $1.2m, rates $5,170, $20.68/m2
            94 Newton Rd, Newton, warehouse on 279m2, CV $0.6m, rates $5,860, $21.01/m2

          4. That’s the question though isn’t it? There were huge numbers of jobs here before the motorway was blasted through, and the area itself had no accessibility problem; it was integrated with its community and the city- perfectly mixed use. The motorway was for the accessibility of other people in other areas to get to the other side of town. The inner suburbs were considered an expendable hinderance for access between outer suburbs not places in themselves. And the evidence is in land use and land value. The motorway brought a decrease in value not an increase for these areas. Though it made living further out more convenient, although of course still subject to apparently endless sums being spent on more and wider motorways. Hosting a motorway is a value killer. That’s why the Hobson Bay motorway did not and never will happen.

            Still as i say above, it’s there, we’ve now got to move on. Instead the current government is doubling down again on this system. I think it’s very clear that instead we now need to:

            1. Build the space efficient systems to provide non-destructive access to the blighted areas, especially a Rapid Transit Network built off the current rail network; but not just the CRL a full network; the CFN
            2. Heal the severance caused by the CMJ as well as is practical- expand those bridges back into streets for example
            3. Re-inhabit these potentially valuable inner areas [this is happening but could be shaped better].

            And NCD: ‘I see the problem as NZ’s continual gravitation to low-rent solutions’ Ae, exactly.

        2. I believe int was 50,000 people *impacted*’ whatever that means exactly, not all of whom actually had their home demolished. So 18k actually forced out sounds right.

  8. Neat History Patrick. Remembering the Trams up Queen street stopping off at the old Farmers Building. By blocking traffic in Queen St for Buses, pedestrian, cycle access this will free up from the burden of Motor Car traffic. I don’t want to be sitting outside a cafe with cars pulling up awaiting for the lights whilst inhaling exhaust fumes & watching my plate of scones being smothering with diesel dust & and my lovely coffee…my poor lovely coffee ruined.
    Heres a Health n Safety regulation….Ban the traffic up queen st.
    A new generation of young people want a new generation of thinking, planning team who are motivated to turn our country upside down and provide the very best modern transport system developed for a city environment, utilized approach, studied from cities who have implemented and actioned a friendly peaceful commuting environment.

    Removed the stagnant city of motorized congestion, time standing still, packages which need to be delivered standing in KMs of halting traffic, lost work time with employees unable to make work on time, crippling health worries of sitting in a car for long hours per day breathing in pollution. Motor vehicle costs, maintenance, worrying traffic tickets, Big brother ever presence awaiting to pounce on you…wanting your hard earned cash.
    Worry Worry…Stress..Stress…Anger…Rage…

    1. Indeed, and it could be done tomorrow, there’s no destination for cars on Queen Street, they’re just rat running and getting impatient at the red lights. The time has come for AT to finally block it off to private cars and open it up to better uses. Once again it could be done very cheaply with temporary materials, and despite all AT’s rhetoric at JSK’s talk, I’m yet to see them following through with a single cheap and fast project. There’s so much potential, just no imagination and a complete unwillingness from those who have control.

      1. Yes, that is so true BBC!

        In the last ten years, I have only once driven on Queen Street to actually get something from Queen Street; every other time has been to cut through to Newton/Mt Eden or something. I’d love to see Queen Street made train or tram only, like in Denver.

        Thanks Patrick for such a nicely written history (and photos that display the damage so graphically).

      2. Agreed, but only if an alternative is installed that ensures that overall transit times (whether car, bus, or train) are unaffected. That may mean more clearways for cars elsewhere, or more frequent buses etc. You can’t just take away one corridor without creating an alternative elsewhere.

        1. Yeah you can. That corridor is doing nothing meaningful for traffic, there is nothing to do for the tiny fraction of users who are in a car. That number is lost among the number of walkers and PT users, at least one order of magnitude higher.

          Those car trips could just disappear and it would all be lost in the rounding.

Leave a Reply