Wellington Scoop

Car dependence, climate and community

tunnel 1927

by Roland Sapsford
The Wellington suburb of Northland in the 1970s was a far cry from what it is now. I had an after-high school job delivering groceries for the GHB store (like Four Square) that’s now a Burger Wisconsin. The owner Rua Harris (“Rua’s personal grocery service”) was a charming man and had customers all over the show. They rang in orders and then I (with one or two others) delivered them in an old CA Bedford van. Some of the older people loved our visits and would always have tea and biscuits for us. Deliveries took a long time some days.

Next door was a butcher shop (now Hell Pizza) where as a three-year old, I once climbed into the window display, and then a chemist, bookshop, fruit store and a Post Office. Every 250m or so further up the hill along Northland Road was another dairy. Most shops were closed at the weekend so people working in them got to have lives as well. Now you can get almost any variety of take-aways from 10 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week, and one dairy remains within a kilometre radius.

The point of this is not nostalgia, though I still smile at the pleasure of buying DC comics from the bookstore, or taking my cents into the post office to deposit in my school savings account. Rather, it’s that you could meet almost all of your needs locally, and almost all the rest were only a trolley bus ride away into town. As a child, my friends were all walking or cycling distance away, and any spare bits of greenery were threaded with the trails made by young imaginations.

Growing up without a car didn’t seem odd. My family wasn’t well off but we weren’t desperately poor either. Most kids around me were in roughly the same boat, so while we who stayed at home might think people who got to go on holiday at Christmas were lucky, there weren’t big dividing lines around who could wear or do or own what. Sharing clothes we’d grown out with other families was just something we did.

No-one talked about CO2 emissions then, but this was a relatively low-emissions lifestyle compared with today, and we were generally well fed but rarely overweight.

Two or three times a year, my father would rent a Mini for the weekend and we’d go places like Makara where the buses never reached. On one of these trips we got the front wheel stuck in a pot hole (the original Minis are LOW) and were pondering what to do when four guys in a farm truck came down and lifted the car back onto the road!

Then of course, came the mid-80s to the mid-90s – the era of deregulation. Car prices plummeted and car ownership sky-rocketed. Shops across the city were open longer and you could drive around shopping for bargains. Cheap imported goods flooded New Zealand and were sold in big box retail facilities. And we entered the world of brunch and takeaways as dietary staples. Decades after many other places, New Zealand rushed headlong into consumerism, car dependence, and it has to be said, great coffee.

Northland is an older suburb, built around the tram route that became the trolley bus route. Many houses are relatively close together and grouped around the public transport route because that was how you travelled before the final walk home. It’s much less dense than Aro Valley or Newtown, but much less sprawly than the newer outer suburbs of the 80s and 90s.

northland tunnel 1929 ex natlib
Northland tram tunnel in 1929. National Library.

Even so, as the 80s rolled on, life in Northland and many other places started to revolve around car ownership. Public transport patronage plummeted and the era of peak-hour trolley buses going every five minutes from Brandon St to Northland became a distant memory.

Pretty soon after that, the trolley wires themselves also went. In an attempt to combat falling patronage, a single bus service all the way to Mairangi was introduced and soon after, the “short service” to Northland disappeared even in peak hours. With no buses using them, the trolley-bus wires were removed back to Chaytor Street, where the Karori trolley-buses would continue to run for another 35 years or so.

Local shops couldn’t compete in terms of convenience, range and price, and, as inequality sky-rocketed and unemployment soared, getting a bargain became a matter of survival for many. It’s not a very big step from there to the row of takeaway shops we see today.

northland takeaway shops

Elsewhere of course, the era of motorway and sprawl began in the 1960s, and the world of suburban isolation and car commuting was in full flower from the word go.

By the early 2000s in Northland, more footpaths and traffic islands appeared, and more recently a 30km/hr speed limit, but there’s also far more cars, with a fair few people driving much faster than 30km/hr. And back on Northland’s side streets, freshly minted driveways cut across public land that used to be play space for kids. Kids cycling on the main road are few and far between.

And so we arrive at today. It’s 2021, and the world needs to change once again. Our survival demands we decarbonise our transport and the way we live.

We all need help to reduce car dependence across our city and its myriad communities. What does the 2035 version of an urban low-emissions life look life? What do we need to do in 2021 to get there safely?

Part 2 will look back from 2035 on how we might have answered these questions.

First published on the new Connect Wellington website.


  1. Dave B, 9. July 2021, 17:34

    Great look back at how society managed without the cars that so many people believe we can’t manage without today. But Roland, are you insinuating that it was not possible for families without cars to go away on holidays? In the late 1980s and early 1990s I would take my wife and family of 3 children away on holiday, usually by train or ferry+train, and if we used a car at all it would be a rental-car just for local use at our destination.
    For many years we didn’t own a car, but we were certainly aware of how options for those without cars had closed down over the years. It would have been much easier to live without a car if car-dependency hadn’t become the accepted norm. That said, and although there were things car-owning families could do that we couldn’t, we didn’t feel deprived. We just did different things, or did things in a different way. And while apologists for car-dependency may argue that it has brought freedom, in many ways it has diminished freedom also, as well as imposing major adverse consequences.

    I welcome contemporary moves to reassess all of this.

  2. Conor, 9. July 2021, 18:02

    Increase density in suburbs close to the city so that public transport and private shops can thrive in these locations. Allow for Paris/Amsterdam/Barcelona levels of density. It’s not complicated. The correlation between density and carbon emissions is direct and causal.

  3. NigelTwo, 9. July 2021, 18:36

    The Northland tunnel is a lovely looking, art deco styled, concrete lined tunnel. Can you imagine the fuss if such a tunnel was proposed in these times!

  4. Roland Sapsford, 9. July 2021, 22:39

    Dave B – thanks for your thoughtful response. To clarify re your question, no I was just noting that some of us couldn’t afford to go on holiday, whether or not we had a car. I had my first Christmas Holiday away from home when I was 12, and that was because my best friend’s family took me with them 🙂 The idea of car-free holidays by train and ferry sounds delightful – probably even harder now than it was back then given we have even fewer long-distance passenger trains!
    Conor – have you looked at the density figures for inner-city Wellington compared to some of those cities? Perhaps you can step through exactly how density increases in already dense, low emissions areas will reduce emissions below existing levels?

  5. Roland Sapsford, 9. July 2021, 22:41

    NigelTwo – yes it is quite a striking art deco piece. Interesting that, along with the Wadestown cutting, Brooklyn Hill and Bowen St, the Northland tunnel was built originally as a piece of public transport infrastructure.

  6. Richard Keller, 17. July 2021, 13:05

    Roland. You are younger than me but your memory (and research?) is very useful today. It can help us see how we’ve been heading in the wrong transport direction for a number of decades. We can’t afford to see ‘convenience’ as a useful approach to the future.
    This came to be mainstream knowledge in the seventies which then led to the desperate reaction known as the neo-liberal.

    Light rail has had a few chances in some places but was swallowed up by the convenience and economic growth brought by the motor car. My own ‘memory’ of the pre-car days (Ohio, USA) consists mostly of one photograph of my parents in the early thirties (before I was born) who were at a park for a group picnic and in the background is a light rail car. This service ran from 1903 to 1933. It surely played a part in my parents getting together (you can see why I’m interested.) The line was called the ‘Columbus, Delaware & Marion’, which went straight north through three counties: Franklin, Delaware, and Marion. On the way was a very small town, Prospect, between Delaware and Marion where my father’s family had settled, and where I was born and grew up. There was also a northwest heading branch from Delaware to Richwood, an equally small town in Union County, where my mother went to high school. The other proof of the existence of the light rail line was in the street where our house was located. It was brick with the bricks laid horizontally to the traffic, except in the center where there was a path the width of a light rail gauge with the bricks laid vertically to the traffic (or was it the other way around?) It’s been paved over for a long while now.

  7. Ross Clark, 21. July 2021, 20:58

    Historically, buying a car in New Zealand was always very expensive, because of the extra costs of local assembly and high sales taxes/tariffs. But that had not stopped New Zealand becoming one of the most motorised societies around. The big changes were in 1985, because that dropped the price of buying a car, if not running it, by about a quarter IIRC. At that point it was hardly a surprise that vehicle ownership took off, with the consequent collapse in public transport demand.

    It also had this positive effect: motorcycle owners traded in their bikes for cars, which led to many fewer injuries and deaths. We don’t often talk about motorcycle use, but it was how my father’s generation got around, and it still attracts “men of a certain age”.

  8. Gabor Toth, 22. July 2021, 10:16

    NigelTwo & Roland ; The Northland Tunnel may appear to be an attractive Art Deco work of infrastructure today but at the time it was built, it was an embarrassing cock-up of epic proportions. Its design was flawed, the nature of the ground was not fully investigated leading to big problems, construction was beset by huge issues requiring extra steel reinforcing and a complete relining. It went massively over-budget and took more than twice as long to be fully completed as originally planned; six years from the start of construction (1923) to the first tram running through it (1929). The Council held an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the debacle which concluded that the process had been flawed from beginning to end and that the tunnel should never have been built (it’s a relatively shallow hill that should have been cut open). Its distinctive design and profile (i.e. oval rather than a half-circle) violated just about every rule in the book for tunnel construction in that era. Though it has now fallen out of living memory, for decades after its completion it was held up by the public as an example of over-spending, unaccountable Council ‘bureaucracy gone mad’.
    It looks nice though!

  9. Dave B, 22. July 2021, 14:37

    Gabor Toth – interesting, thanks for that background.


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