The work ‘Transformational’ is thrown around a lot these days when it comes to transport projects, but few have had as profound of an impact on our city as the Harbour Bridge, which celebrated its 60th birthday yesterday.
The bridge was famously built as a scaled back version of what was originally intended in order to save money. Instead of a 5-6 lane bridge with footpaths the government of the day cut it back to just 4 lanes and no footpaths – something still missing to this day, although Skypath will finally sort that out.
While the decision to cut back the bridge to four lanes has often been suggested as on of Auckland’s biggest planning failures, the addition of the clip-ons has resulted in the bridge having more vehicle capacity than it would have had otherwise. That means those clip-ons have probably saved us billions in not having to build another road crossing.
When the clip-ons were added, only about 32,000 vehicles a day crossed the bridge but that number has increased significantly over the following decades. The 2018 numbers have recently been published and show that just over 171,000 vehicles a day cross the bridge. This means that since the bridge opened, just under 2.3 billion vehicles have crossed it. The only part of the motorway network carrying more vehicles than the bridge is SH1 just south of the city, between Grafton Gully and Gillies Ave with the section between Khyber Pass to Gillies Ave averages over 200k vehicles per day).
But while the number of vehicles crossing the bridge hasn’t increase much over the last decade, the number of people crossing the bridge has continued to increase. This is largely thanks to the Northern Busway and other PT improvements. As a result, at peak times now more than a third of people crossing the bridge are doing so on a bus. This data also suggests that most of the vehicle growth we’ve seen over at least the last 30 years has occurred ‘off-peak’.
Transport and land use are two sides of the same coin and perhaps the biggest transformation the harbour bridge had was to open up the North Shore. It effectively shifted the shore closer to the city, converting it from a series of largely sleepy seaside villages and farms to a major urban area home to over 260,000 people. Although some residents seem to still think it’s a sleepy seaside village. The image below shows what the North Shore looked like from the air in 1959 about when the bridge opened (from the Council’s GIS viewer). Most development was around eastern beaches.
Not only did the Harbour Bridge reshape the North Shore, it also transformed the area south of the harbour too, and not in a good way. The Central Motorway Junction was carved through the city displacing thousands and has long acted like a noose around the city centre’s neck. But many might be surprised to learn it was not part of the original motorway plans. They would have seen a route more like the Western Ring Route be the main road though Auckland with the central city served by an earlier version of the City Rail Link. The Harbour Bridge changed this though as local politicians wanted to ensure there were enough cars crossing the bridge and paying the tolls to cover the loan to build it. As such, they advocated for the bridge to become part of State Highway 1 and that meant it needed a connection to the rest of the motorway network, ultimately resulting in the CMJ.
Perhaps what’s most exciting about the bridge is that finally, at over 60 years old, it will soon have added the thing it should have had from day one, a way to walk and cycle across. This will come thanks to plans announced by the NZTA last week.
Perhaps tied in with the addition of Skypath the NZTA could also look paint the bridge something other than boring grey. They could treat it a bit like the Eiffel Tower which changes colour from time to time.
Since shortly after the bridge opened, there has been talk of building another road crossing to the city. Increasingly it is becoming clear that this simply can’t happen. The most recent information from the NZTA shows that building another road crossing, even with road pricing to limit demand, will result in worse congestion and is a waste of money. What would help though is building a dedicated public transport crossing, most likely light rail. We’d love to see a bridge be considered instead of a tunnel so that those using it can enjoy the view – at the moment crossing the bridge by bus, especially at the top of a double decker, provides one of the best views there is of the city. It would be a shame to lose that.