Traffic backs up in the Auckland suburb of Te Atatu Peninsula.
Queues of traffic form during school pickup in Te Atatū Peninsula. (Photo: Chris Schulz / Treatment: Archi Banal)

OPINIONSocietyJune 29, 2023

Te Atatū Peninsula isn’t coming back from this

Traffic backs up in the Auckland suburb of Te Atatu Peninsula.
Queues of traffic form during school pickup in Te Atatū Peninsula. (Photo: Chris Schulz / Treatment: Archi Banal)

Once a quiet haven with village vibes, the over-stuffed West Auckland community is now a never-ending traffic-clogged nightmare, writes former resident Chris Schulz.

On the day we tried to move out, we couldn’t leave. Queues of traffic snarled ahead of us for several kilometres, brake lights blinking in the twilight. Cars backed up bumper-to-bumper from the northwestern motorway interchange, fumes filled with anger and carbon floating past McDonald’s, past the suburb’s crap supermarket, past the wonderful library and community centre, and past a series of excellent takeaway joints: Haddad’s, Pizza Landing, John Chan’s.

We’d spent that drizzly Thursday packing up. A moving truck was booked for Friday. After 13 years living in Te Atatū Peninsula in the same home that allowed us to raise two kids, then walk them to the same schools where they were taught by the same teachers, it was time to say goodbye. Surplus gear was loaded into our two cars, a random assortment of pillows, shoes and kitchen appliances crammed in. The evening trip was planned to get a head start on the following day’s moving chaos.

Traffic banked up along Te Atatu Road.
Traffic backs up several kilometres away from the motorway. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

We were fleeing for several reasons – most of them traffic-related. The irony wasn’t lost on us that, on the night we started our move, there was plenty of it. By 7.30pm, we thought we might be free. Google Maps reported otherwise, with a 38-minute journey to our new home predicted. Almost all of that time would be spent trying to get off the Peninsula, which has only one way in and one way out. We griped. The kids moaned.

By then, they were as sick of us complaining about the traffic as we were sitting in it. To pass the time, we walked them past all those red brake lights to grab a quick dinner. “What’s going on?” asked one customer as they picked up their pizzas and pointed at the traffic banked up outside. “Dunno,” replied a staff member. “It’s been like that since 4pm.”

Right now, the rapidly growing suburb of Te Atatū Peninsula is heaving. Traffic delays anyone trying to leave and jams have become a near-daily occurrence. The grind starts in the mornings, sometimes as early as 6.30am, as commuters head to work. It continues well past 9am as school drop-offs join the fray.

There is brief respite through the lunchtime break before they begin again at school pickup time. If there’s an accident anywhere along the route – even a minor bumper-to-bumper on the northwest motorway – then R.I.P to your plans.

In the 2018 census, the Peninsula reported having 13,000 residents. After five years of development, with hundreds of new townhouses and thousands of new residents joining the community, this year’s census is likely to report a number much higher.

Yet little thought seems to have gone into just how much development a suburb with one entry and exit point can take. Bike options are available, but they’re not for everyone. Public transport options are sporadic and inconsistent. You’re much more likely to see concrete mixers and trucks carrying construction materials than you are a bus.

Footpath upgrades in Te Atatū Peninsula.
Minor footpath upgrades caused chaos in Te Atatū Peninsula. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

So traffic jams continue through the afternoon and into the evening. Sometimes they go into the night. Cars bank up on the four-lane main stretch of Te Atatū Road. They cram into the many side streets. Road rules and niceties have flown out the window. Cars take up any free space they can find, including intersections and roundabouts. Occasionally, drivers head up and over footpaths, forging their own roads.

The result is a community that feels like it’s on edge. The local Facebook group’s usual array of minor complaints – a kid on his bike playing his boom box too loudly, or someone parking their ute slightly over a driveway – has been replaced by a daily deluge of howls about how bad the traffic has become. These reached fever pitch earlier this year when minor footpath upgrades along Te Atatū Road forced drivers down to one lane and added up to 90 minutes to commute times.

A graph showing the boom in townhouses in Te Atatu.
The yellow part shows a recent boom in townhouses. (Graph: Nick Smale)

I was mad too, but I held off from joining in the fracas. We live in Aotearoa’s biggest city and some traffic is expected. (This happens in many other places, including Tauranga.) Besides, an increased population often means improved amenities. Te Atatū is blessed with a fantastic library and a wonderful array of cafes and takeaway options. If you’re a parent, you can take your pick of schools and parks. A walkway stretches almost entirely around the peninsula offering stunning views back towards the city. It’s no wonder people want to live there.

Yet the traffic is at breaking point. Lately, it’s become obvious the daily grind isn’t going to get any better. A public transport fairy isn’t on their way to wave a magic traffic wand to fix this. Te Atatū Peninsula isn’t going back to the way it was. The community we’d loved for so long was disappearing in a cloud of angry traffic fumes. We started looking for new schools for the kids. It was time to leave. 

Spend five minutes in the suburb and it’s obvious why this is happening: urban development. Since The Spinoff reported on this early last year, mass construction of two- and three-bedroom townhouses continues at a dizzying pace. Go for a walk around several blocks and you’ll be detoured around the multiple developments happening on nearly every street. They criss-cross the suburb, the grind of hammers and drills providing a daily soundtrack to anyone working from home.

Te Atatu
Construction is underway in Te Atatū Peninsula. Photo: Chris Schulz

Developers saw dollar signs gleaming when urban density rules changed five years ago. Plots of quarter-acre sections were bought up en masse, leading to bizarre situations. In 2020, three neighbours on Yeovil Road joined forces to sell to developers for a combined sum of $5.93 million – nearly $2 million each.

While the numbers no longer get that high, developers are still developing. Close to our former home, a mechanic’s car yard was recently flattened to make way for townhouses. A short walk from Pizza Landing, “For sale” signs have just gone up for 20 townhouses crammed onto what used to be two single-home sections. Over they past five years, they’ve gone up across the road, down the corner, and around the back. Almost everywhere you look, builders are very busy.

All that development means more people. All those people want to go places, so that means more cars. Right now, there are precious few options for residents. A bus interchange has been built but isn’t yet in use. (The Auckland Transport page for the project reports that it is “on hold”.) An Auckland Transport guide covered in florescent flourishes indicates how it might one day operate, but I can’t remember the last time I saw the interchange this quiet. It’s usually crammed with traffic. (On Facebook, some argue traffic light sequencing here causes many of the issues.)

A bus interchange in Te Atatu
(Screengrab: Auckland Transport)

Spoiler alert: this isn’t getting any better anytime soon. “The North West is growing,” reports Auckland Transport. “Over the next 30 years an extra 100,000 people are expected to live in the area, along with 40,000 new houses and 20,000 new jobs.” Kumeū-Huapai, Riverhead, Redhills, Hobsonville and Whenuapai are listed as suburbs where much of that growth is expected to take place. “Nearly triple the number of people [will be] travelling along the Northwestern Motorway.”

Te Atatū Peninsula has one big difference from those other suburbs: it has just one entry and exit point. Unless you own a jetski or a helicopter, if you want to leave the Peninsula you’re pretty much forced to use one of two lanes going in, and two lanes heading out. All that growth without robust public transport additions is squeezing and suffocating the suburb, forcing it to grind to a halt. Residents face two options: grit your teeth every day and run the gauntlet, or leave.

After six months of the former, we chose the latter.

Te Atatu
Construction continues in Te Atatū. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Now settled into our new suburb, we know it’s the best move we could have made. Yes, there are traffic queues at peak times. Townhouses are being built as well, one development a nearby neighbour. We have no problem with that because there are regular bus timetables. Residents have options. Being stuck in a jam doesn’t mean kissing goodbye to the next 60 minutes and missing any appointments you made. So we sold our second car. My daughter walks to school with a new array of friends. The other day, I biked to work in the sun and smiled the whole way.

I still need to visit Te Atatū. Every time I visit, I’m reminded why we left. My son bikes back out there to school most days, but on a recent Friday it was raining heavily and I offered to pick him up. Big mistake. A journey that should have taken 20 minutes took nearly 90. Most of that time was spent crawling just 200 metres, stuck behind traffic trying to get to Henderson, or heading north. I raged. I fumed. My kids demanded snacks that I didn’t have.

We were stuck in traffic so long my foot went numb on the brake. Finally, I did something dumb: I tweeted. Surprisingly, Auckland Transport responded. “We’ve received word there was an incident on Te Atatū road about an hour ago that has caused significant delays,” it said. I couldn’t seen any signs of an accident. From my years of living there, I knew this wasn’t a one-off.

These days, Te Atatū is like this most of the time. To anyone still living there, you have the same options we had: grit your teeth, or flee.

Keep going!