Test driving the northern motorway commute

BUMPER TO BUMPER: Cars stuck in traffic on the northern motorway.
BUMPER TO BUMPER: Cars stuck in traffic on the northern motorway.

Is it reasonable for Cantabrians to complain about gridlock on the northern corridor? PHILIP MATTHEWS takes a drive.

Up early in the cold and foggy dark to test an idea or run an experiment.

Turn all the car's heaters on full as well as the headlights. The idea is this: we hear a lot about the new congestion in Christchurch, the gridlock in the north, but what does it mean unless you experience it?

6.45am I leave St Martins in the ungridlocked south to join the far end of the queue in the north.

There are outlines of joggers in the fog. Traffic updates on Morning Report say to expect congestion on the four avenues but they say nothing about the northern corridor. But even a passing mention on the traffic updates, usually limited to breakdowns and holds-up in Auckland, helps us feel like a grown-up city.

The problem is simple. In the three years since the earthquakes, commuter towns north of the Waimakariri River have grown three times faster than predicted. Further motorways are planned but are still some years away. The problem will get worse before it gets any better.

7.00am Christchurch ends where the motorway starts, or vice versa. On your left, an old pub called the Peg. On your right, the sign that reads "Christchurch". The traffic heading south, into the city, is already bumper to bumper as far as the eye can see.

These are Auckland scenes. The long waits in traffic, the rush hour that expands to two or three hours. In Auckland, I wouldn't leave for work until 9.30am and would be gone by 4.00pm, to avoid Sandringham Rd or Dominion Rd during gridlock. You would see the residue of accidents on Sandringham Rd most afternoons.

Car parking and traffic jams became Auckland's legendary boring obsession. We hated being stuck in cars but loved complaining about it. We were forever estimating travel times and circling for parking spaces.

Relative lack of traffic is not the main reason people move to Christchurch but it's a pleasant side effect. Arriving pre- earthquake, we noticed that people drove to the speed limit and had good manners. No more of Auckland's red light runners, close followers and bad mergers. Maybe boy racers are demonised here at least partly because they are the flipside of the average Cantabrian's politeness behind the wheel.

Even after the earthquakes, Cantabrians continue to drive well. Despite everything. Despite the road works and re-routing that tests everyone's patience and has made the central city a labyrinth of one-ways and dead ends and produces bottlenecks in strange places.

7.15am Imagine you had been tempted by the advertising and had bought a house at Pegasus. All the literature for this tidy new town promised that you were just 25 minutes away from Christchurch. A quick trip to and from work and the rest of the time luxuriating in an easy lifestyle that is "worlds apart yet only a short drive from Christchurch".

Then everything changed. A short drive became long.

To the cynical, Pegasus might resemble a cult compound set on a golf course. But our commute will start here, on the corner of Pegasus Boulevard and Mapleham Drive, just inside the sculpted gates. The pink sunrise is starting to break through.

Turn left out of Pegasus onto State Highway 1 and traffic is flowing freely in a 100kmh zone. Then almost immediately you slow to 70kmh and then 50kmh because you are driving through Woodend.

7.21am The motorway begins again as one lane. Traffic is steady past Lineside Rd and Ohoka Rd, then pours out of Kaiapoi in a thick stream.

7.24am You are now going 3kmh and completely stopping fairly often. Every so often, you get to speed up to 10kmh or maybe even 20kmh. That feels almost daring.

Nearly every driver is alone in his or her bubble. In the absence of conversation or social input, you can pay extra attention to the radio. By the time you get to work, you will be fully briefed on the Nigerian situation.

7.27am You are going 20kmh then stopping, then going 10kmh and then stopping.

7.30am There are few landmarks on this journey but here is one. The Hellers building on your left is passed at a leisurely 20kmh, slow enough to see that a sign says there are jobs going. That would be a short commute.

7.31am You notice with a sense of dread that traffic is backed up on Tram Rd and waits to be admitted onto the motorway. You have gone 12 kilometres in 16 minutes, an average speed of just under 50kmh, most of it in a 100kmh zone.

But you get to speed up over the river, to an exciting 60kmh on the bridge and then down to 50kmh on land. Then you stop again, get to 10kmh, 20kmh. The familiar stop- start pattern.

What can be done about all of this? Last week, Jim Harland, regional director of the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), proposed a possible solution. Bluetooth technology could show where cars were headed once they left the northern corridor and were absorbed into the city.

This would cost $25,000 per year. If the cars were dropping kids at schools, then school start times could shift accordingly. Work hours could shift. But how many of these 7am commuters could be taking kids to school?

Other solutions seemed more realistic: car pooling, commuter trains and bus lanes. All of these have been part of the recipe in Auckland. A Research First survey of Waimakariri district residents reportedly showed that 36 per cent would use commuter trains regularly, 27 per cent occasionally and 28 per cent not at all, but people like to present an ideal version of themselves in surveys. Actual use would surely be lower.

Environment Canterbury (ECan) has allocated $20,000 towards figuring out rail solutions. But the most obvious problem is at the Christchurch end. How useful is a train journey that terminates behind the carparks and retail strips of Tower Junction?

And do people even want to be prised out of their bubbles? A car is a private world, sealed off from the sounds, sights and smells of others. Unless the trip can be done on public transport in half the time or for a fraction of the cost of running and parking a car, how will it ever be tempting? Especially in a small and suburban city which will not have a real centre for years.

Even for committed public transport fans, Christchurch does not make it easy. My usual routine is to walk one way to work and bus another. The walk is 45 minutes, and best done in the afternoons, so the bus is for the mornings. A walk to Colombo St, a wait for one of the buses that are never as frequent as promised and then another walk usually adds up to 45 minutes.

Yes, it is no faster to bus than to walk. It is only marginally faster to bus from an inner suburb than to drive from North Canterbury, traffic jams included. And then there's the weather.

7.37am You have reached a speed of 40kmh again. A sign promises that the motorway ends in 400 metres. Usually such information is barely registered, but in slow motion you get to pick up every nuance.

7.39am You have now reached that "motorway ends" sign and you are asked to go no faster than 60kmh. Not that it makes the slightest difference. You and everyone else are still going 30kmh.

7.40am You are now in the suburbs. There is the rare sighting of a cyclist. Buses are rumoured but not actually seen.

You go slowly through Northwood and Styx Mill. You slow outside St Bede's College. It took 16 minutes to go from the "Christchurch" sign to the college, a distance of 5.5km.

The rest of the drive is a reverse of the usual experience. Most cities become more congested as you near the centre but our strange city is the opposite of that rule. By the time you see a "ride on" billboard on Papanui Rd, promising a new central bus exchange in 2015, traffic is flowing so smoothly as to make such a thing seem almost redundant.

8.06am On Bealey Ave, signs warn of "delays on Durham and Barbadoes". The radio had it right when it said to take Colombo St, which only reopened last month. You get a clean run to Gloucester St with no stops, almost no traffic. Is this road still a secret?

The city seen again from the north after so long is both familiar and unfamiliar. There is the Christchurch Town Hall and Victoria Square and various ruins.

8.15am The commute took exactly one hour from imaginary door to real door. Does that seem excessive?

The best measure is to compare it with Auckland. Travel time between suburban Takapuna and central Auckland increases by 179 per cent between 7am and 9am. Travel times from other North Shore suburbs more than double, as they also do from outlying Papatoetoe and Pakuranga.

Drives from most Auckland suburbs take between 57 per cent and 99 per cent longer than usual during rush hours. Those were 2011 figures but are unlikely to have changed much.

Our drive from Pegasus to Gloucester St should take about 25 minutes but took an hour, putting it at North Shore levels. In fact, the 28km from Pegasus to the city exactly matches the distance from Takapuna to Auckland Airport, a trip that could be achievable in 60 minutes even during rush hour.

So we have become Auckland only with better drivers.

The one saving grace is that there was no traffic within the four avenues, otherwise we would have had an even worse time of it than the weary and complaining commuters of Takapuna.

The Press