Story: Roads

New Zealand’s rugged terrain, many rivers and dense forest made it difficult to build roads. People in isolated areas longed for roads to be built, to improve access to markets and bring prosperity – but for many years the roads were poor and vehicles struggled with mud, dust and rough surfaces.

Story by Carl Walrond
Main image: Northern Gateway Toll Road

Story summary

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Early roads

A road is basically a cleared route through the landscape along which wheeled vehicles transport goods and passengers.

Roads often started as ‘bridle paths’, which were suitable for horses but too rough for wheeled vehicles. Some were upgraded so a horse and cart could use them. Then they might be metalled (surfaced with small stones), and later sealed with asphalt. Some roads followed Māori paths.

The first roads were short. They often linked ports to settlements, or were rough streets in towns.

The army built roads during the New Zealand wars of the 1860s, so soldiers could move around quickly. The government also employed Māori to build roads.

The importance of roads

Roads were crucial to the development of towns, farming and industry – and, later, tourism. In Otago, roads were built during the 1860s gold rushes to move equipment and supplies.

Building roads

Surveyors laid out roads. Roadmen cut down trees and used gelignite explosive to blow up rocks and large tree stumps. They worked with shovels and wheelbarrows to make roads. River stones were broken up into small stones and used to surface roads.

It was easy to build roads in flat areas, but hilly regions were more difficult.

From the late 19th century steamrollers gave roads a smoother surface. As motor vehicles became common, roads needed to be stronger. Unsealed roads were dusty in summer and muddy in winter, but sealing was expensive. Roads improved over time, but many remained rough and winding.

Funding roads

Roads were built and maintained mainly by provincial governments, then by local councils and central government. Tolls were charged on some roads – and on the Auckland and Tauranga harbour bridges and in the Lyttelton tunnel – to help pay for the roads.

Since 1936 state highways have been funded by the government. Local roads are managed by local councils.

During the 1930s economic depression the government used unemployed people to build roads. After the Second World War, the roads were in a poor state, and needed work to help them cope with larger vehicles and more traffic. In 1954 the road from Wellington to Auckland was sealed all the way.

The first stretch of motorway opened in Wellington in 1950, and by the early 2000s there was 179 kilometres of motorway in New Zealand.

State Highway 1 is the main road in New Zealand. It stretches the length of the North and South islands, from Cape Rēinga to Bluff.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Roads', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 11 March 2010, updated 1 March 2016