Story: Public transport

The steam trams which thundered along city streets belching steam and soot and terrifying horses were a short-lived form of public transport in New Zealand. Over time electric trams, trains and buses were all competing forms of transport, but cars overtook them all. In the early 2000s New Zealand had one of the lowest rates of public transport use in the world.

Story by Adrian Humphris
Main image: Commuters at Britomart Transport Centre, Auckland

Story summary

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During early colonial settlement in New Zealand public transport was rare. Towns were small and people walked everywhere. From the 1850s there were horse-drawn omnibuses. Tramways began to be built in the 1870s. Steam trams were unpopular because they cost too much to run, and pumped out soot – they also frightened the horses. In most places horse-drawn trams took over.

Suburbs expanded because people could take the tram or omnibus from their homes to jobs in town.

Cable cars

Cable tramways were built in Dunedin and Wellington, and the Wellington cable car is still operating.

Electric trams and buses

Trams began to run on electricity in the early 1900s. They used overhead wires and were called trolley trams. It was expensive to build tramways. When buses were introduced, people caught the tram to the end of the line and then swapped to a bus.

Buses took people even further from the centre of town and more suburbs grew. Buses began competing with tram routes and tramways became less profitable. Eventually the lines were pulled up.


From the 1930s trolleybuses were introduced, some using overhead tram lines. The first trolleybus was in Wellington, and they still operate in the city. As diesel buses became cheaper and easier to run, trolleybuses were phased out in other centres.


Wellington got its first suburban train line in 1874. Its railways have been maintained, and on a per capita basis more people travel by train in Wellington than in other centres. Auckland’s railways became run down from the 1950s as more people travelled by car. But in the 2000s and 2010s millions of dollars were spent on Auckland rail to entice commuters off congested roads. Suburban lines in Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill were all closed in the 1960s to 1980s.


There are harbour ferries in Auckland, Wellington and Lyttelton, Christchurch. Transport by water has been common since Māori first arrived.


Public transport has been funded by central government and local councils. In the 1970s some people encouraged public transport because it was good for the environment and kept the roads clear. But urban planners largely ignored this, and by 2001 New Zealand had one of the lowest rates of public transport use in the world. In 2013, 4.2% of New Zealand workers commuted by bus and 1.6% by train.

In 2016 the government continued to charge a tax on petrol, and used some of the money to fund public transport. Transfund decides how to spend money on public transport and on roads.

How to cite this page:

Adrian Humphris, 'Public transport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Adrian Humphris, published 11 March 2010, reviewed & revised 11 March 2016