Commute Week: The rush-hour drive from Rangiora into Christchurch is bad enough to give Auckland a run for its money. But Jamie Small finds it’s no longer a commute from hell.
The morning run into Christchurch from the north is famously terrible. The burgeoning population of the neighbouring Waimakariri District adds to the congestion problem, particularly in the years since the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes when many people moved away from the city.
I wanted to see for myself how bad it can get, so I woke up early on a Monday morning and drove from my western Christchurch home to Rangiora to try the commute coming the other way. I started my 30km “commute” at the Waimakariri District Council office in Rangiora at 8am.
Now, if you wanted to do some pre-planning, the Waimakariri and Christchurch City Council along with national body NZTA have a website with a dashboard display of the routes (and times) to get into and around Christchurch.
Which is probably worth the time investment; a 2015 survey showed Waimakariri residents were experiencing a one-hour commute. Only 3% used buses, which respondents said took even longer. The vast majority – 85% – drove with nobody else in the car. Sometimes it’s a commute that can take 75 minutes; on a ‘good’ day, it’s around 50.
NZTA’s $122 million four-lane Western Belfast Bypass, designed to improve flow across the western border of the city and alleviate congestion coming from the north, opened in November 2017 and officials claimed it would help the problem.
On the day of my experiment, as I drive out of Rangiora I call Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel to get her take on the situation. “You’re actually behaving as part of the problem today,” she says. “Have you got no-one else in the car with you?”
For the record, I do. Which is lucky, because it’s single occupancy vehicles that are causing congestion, the mayor says. Dalziel sees carpooling as a solution to reduce the number of cars on the road and claims both councils are doing their bit to promote the practice.
But does Christchurch City Council have any obligation to look after Waimakariri commuters, who don’t pay Christchurch rates? “It’s a shared responsibility… Certainly it’s not a cost that you would put on the ratepayers of Christchurch. But it’s of benefit to us that we don’t have congestion on our roads, and of course a lot of the people who come in from Rangiora will come down through Belfast.”
Dalziel says businesses aren’t yet completely resettled in the central city after the earthquakes, so many drivers take the new Western Belfast Bypass and come past the airport towards Hornby. She says her own commute from the northeastern suburb of Burwood takes 15 minutes via a “back route”. Dalziel usually ride-shares with her husband. “Or, like this morning, I took the bus and that’s a very quick drive into town,” she says.
“The thing I love about getting on a bus is I’ve already looked at all my emails on the way into work, I’ve already checked out my social media, and I’m ready for a day at the office. [Plus] I haven’t had to concentrate on driving a car, which can be frustrating, as you are probably finding out.”
I’m not, but it isn’t by design. I’ve taken the back way [read: took a wrong turn] out of Rangiora and gone through Woodend onto State Highway 1.
Which is lucky, because I spend the next 20 minutes of the commute angrily recounting quotes into my highly-technical dictaphone rig (sports-taped to the centre console) because I think I’ve failed to record a conversation. (It later turns out the recording was fine. Don’t do journalism and drive.)
I finally encounter a very temporary traffic slow-down on the bridge over the Waimakariri River. An LED sign on the other side of the bridge states times into the city: “Marshland 25, Main North Rd 31, Riccarton 24.” I take the Belfast exit off SH1 at 8:19 and traffic is clear. Things start to thicken up at Styx Mill Rd, but everyone is moving along at a fair clip.
Christchurch City Council and NZTA are still working on the $240m Christchurch Northern Corridor project which will link Queen Elizabeth II Drive (QEII Drive) to Cranford St, widen Cranford St and connect to State Highway 74 in the north of the city. In theory, this will ease congestion in the area I am now driving into.
I hit my first traffic jam at 8:24 outside the Mobil at the corner of Preston’s Rd. I decide this is a good time to call Waimakariri mayor David Ayers.
“I’m currently in the middle of doing the commute test run I told you about,” I say. “I left Rangiora at 8:00. I’m now sitting in traffic. I haven’t quite got to Papanui yet. I imagine this is something you’ve done a few times?”
That’s a negative. The mayor has a two-minute walk to work. Smart. But he says it’s getting better for those stuck in a car. “[The Christchurch commute] has been much improved since the opening of the Western Belfast Bypass.”
“These days I allow myself an hour,” Ayers says. “In the middle of the day when the traffic’s all going smoothly I would probably allow point-to-point 35 minutes.”
Ayers says there is usually congestion at Tram Rd, back on the Waimakariri side of the river, but it usually happens around 7:30 so I’ve missed it. He also says the traffic varies depending on the day and time of year, and NZTA research shows Fridays are lighter. Ayers says March, October and November are the worst months because people are unlikely to be on holiday.
He says commuter concern has dropped off since the Western Belfast Bypass opened, but there are still some choke points, like at Sawyers Arms Rd for those skirting down the western side of the city.
And what of public transport? “I think there’s still a need from Waimakariri’s point of view… to make sure that our public transport works as efficiently as possible,” he says.
“People tell you that buses leave Rangiora almost empty, but the people in Rangiora don’t know how many people are getting on in Kaiapoi or Belfast and so on. The problem up until recently has been that the buses are caught in the same traffic as the cars and that doesn’t help their reliability or speed. The other thing is… the buses only go to the centre of the city. We know from our own work that the commuters that come from Waimakariri go right across Christchurch.”
The service has taken a hit, with a run from Rangiora to Christchurch Airport and Hornby ceasing operation last December. The six-service route has been replaced by increased frequency (every ten minutes during peak) on the Rangiora-city run.
Ayers is keen for more public transport. He says the case for rail hasn’t stacked up yet, but it is something to “keep in the mix” in the long term.
He says Christchurch people have the impression everyone from Waimakariri commutes into the city, but that’s not the case. “Obviously we’re only talking about the workforce, not all of the people who are at school or retired or whatever. And as far as we are aware – we haven’t seen the latest census figures yet – in the past more than half of the Waimakariri workforce actually works in Waimakariri or in Hurunui.”
I drive along Sherborne St past Edgeware Rd. At 8:41 traffic is running smoothly. I can see the Port Hills and the Crowne Plaza, and I know my commute is nearly over. I pull up outside the Christchurch City Council main entrance at 8:46. Not bad at all.
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