Story: Roads

Page 4. Traffic on the roads

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Difficult roads

Mud was a huge problem, and wet weather turned many roads into bogs. Drivers had to approach bad patches with great care, trying to stay in the centre. If a cart wheel went on the soft edge the vehicle could tip over. Draught horses such as Clydesdales with their large hooves were favoured. Sometimes horses got stuck and had to be pulled out with ropes.

When cars arrived they also struggled. Many motorists carried chains, which were fitted over tyres in muddy conditions. They didn’t always work, and drivers sometimes had to ask the local farmer to pull them out of a bog with his draught horses. Many rivers and streams were unbridged, and vehicles were often held up by floods. Block and tackle (ropes and pulleys) were used to winch cars across fords in the 1920s and 1930s.

Vehicles and roads

Cart wheels’ narrow iron rims cut into unmetalled roads. Each cart’s wheels dug deeper, and when it rained water ran down the ruts. Poorly maintained roads soon had ridges and deep ruts. If one wheel got caught in a rut and the other on a ridge, a cart could tip or the strain could break axles. Early roads were often narrow, so oncoming traffic was a problem. Roads had laybys where one vehicle could pull over. Arguments were frequent over who should back down (not so easy with horses).

Road surfaces varied mainly due to the underlying geology. In flat places such as the Canterbury Plains road building was relatively easy – but this was unusual in New Zealand. The North Island, with its clay soils, hill country and deep river valleys, was especially difficult. Road cuttings destabilised slopes and led to slips. The pumice country around Taupō and Rotorua was dusty in summer and clay muck in winter. Roads developed washboard corrugations which shook the motorist, and the abrasive silica dust damaged exposed engines’ parts.

Fair-weather roads

Once roads were built they had to be maintained. Keeping them covered in metal was expensive enough, and most regions lacked funds to seal roads. In many isolated areas road building languished. For example in 1900 the coach road from Auckland to Taranaki was not yet completed – and it only became an all-weather route in the 1920s. In 1921 half of the country’s roads were still just rough tracks. Unsealed roads, even those that were metalled, could turn to mud. At Christmas 1926, 12 cars got bogged down in the Hamilton–Rotorua road – some for a number of days.

Keep the gelly warm

Gelignite explosive was used by roadmen to blow up boulders and to form cuttings. It had to be kept at a constant temperature, and South Otago roadman George Bates recalls working with it in the 1930s: ‘In the winter when the gelignite was frozen, we carried it inside our shirts, it was very dangerous when frozen and could blow up on touch.’1

The roadmen

Roadmen were a familiar site on rural roads. They walked or cycled to where they worked. Most worked alone with wheelbarrow and shovel on the stretches of road they had been allocated to maintain. Roadmen dug out culverts (drains taking water under the road) and water tables (the ditches alongside). They often camped in tents or huts. From the late 1890s roadmen used gelignite to blow up large boulders and areas that they couldn’t dig. In many places roadmen had no lorries until the 1930s.

The road user’s experience

At first, people complained because there were no roads. When roads came, users complained about their state – muddy and unmetalled, with no bridges. As car use increased in the early 20th century roads got better, but many were still winding and narrow – children got carsick, and cars overheated on the steep hill climbs or skidded on metal. Breakdowns and punctures were common.

As roads improved, new debates arose around the economic costs and benefits of road building (especially where motorways cut through existing suburbs). Road safety increasingly became an issue in the 1970s. Many roads have been realigned to eliminate accident black spots. Congestion also became a problem on Auckland roads. In the early 2000s there was considerable debate over whether public funds should be used to construct roads, rather than on developing public transport.

  1. Quoted in Evelyn M. McLay, Stepping out: a history of Clutha County, 1876–1976. Balclutha: Clutha County Council, 1977, p. 329. Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Roads - Traffic on the roads', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 August 2022)

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