In the 1950s and 1960s the car was a symbol of modernity, the means by which people could access new suburbs and escape the congestion of the inner city. New Zealand imported its transport-planning concepts, with a focus on motorway development and the free movement of vehicles, from the US and Britain.
In 1979 one of the few critics of the car in New Zealand, writer Monte Holcroft, characterised it as ‘hungry for space’. Referring to the effects of cars in cities and at rural attractions, he claimed that ‘by their own demands and enormous proliferation [they] are destroying the space they crave’.1
The sprawling nature of cities like Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and Christchurch is due to the car-based transportation planning of the 1940s and 1950s. These places are highly dispersed and most residents are dependent on cars. In the early 2000s the average urban density of cities in New Zealand and Australia was 15 people per hectare, with 8.1 metres of road per person. This compares with 55 people per hectare and 3.0 metres of road per person for Western European cities and 150 and 2.3 for high-income Asian cities.
The popularity of shopping malls from the 1960s also contributed to increasing car use. With their large car parks and suburban locations, malls were designed to be driven to; some are difficult to reach using public transport.
Cars and public transport
New Zealand cities initially grew around and along tramlines, which were later supplemented by bus routes. Public transport use plunged with the end of trams in the 1950s, and the rise in popularity of the car. By the early 2000s Auckland was described as having ‘arguably the worst public transport levels of any western city with a population of more than one million’. 2
In 1991 Auckland scored worse than even US cities in terms of public transport use. Use increased to a degree after the mid-1990s, when regional councils became responsible for urban passenger transport policy, and more attention was paid to routes, timetables and levels of service. From 2001 to 2008 bus use increased around 30%. Even so, in Christchurch for example, the 2006 census revealed that only 3% of journeys to work were by bus.
From the 1990s many main suburban streets and roads became very congested, particularly during the morning and afternoon ‘school runs’. In the 2000s a far higher proportion of schoolchildren were driven to school than in their parents’ day. Ironically, this was often due to concerns about traffic.
Sustainability and climate change
Traffic is expected to grow 40–50% by 2021, accompanied by increased congestion, pollution and carbon emissions. In the early 2000s, 16.4% of national greenhouse gas emissions were from road transport. Government policy in the early 2000s was to halve transport emissions by 2040.
Cars and future living spaces
Cars shape the places where people live, and this is reflected in city and district plans. For example, in Christchurch car-free developments are not an option – rules for the inner city zones require that new houses have at least one parking space per unit. This is likely to change as cities will need urban development strategies that promote more intensive development.
Rising costs of petrol, traffic congestion and concerns about the sustainability of sprawling cities dependant on cars suggest that the places people live in will need to be re-shaped. In a country of enthusiastic motorists, the transition is likely to be a slow process.