From the 1840s roads were needed to connect townships, provide access to ports, and settle inland areas. Early dirt roads became very muddy after heavy rain but could be used by packhorses or by bullock teams pulling sleds. Horse-drawn wheeled transport – two-wheeled drays, carts, and later coaches and buggies – required roads with a hard (gravelled or shingled) surface.
Cash-strapped settlers put pressure on regional and central government to pay for roads. In 1858–59 roads absorbed 58% of the Hawke’s Bay Provincial Council’s budget, and a third of the Otago Provincial Council’s funds. Often, however, governments did not have enough money to meet roading demands.
In many country areas, road boards took on the responsibility. Elected board members collected rates from landowners in the area to fund roads. Road boards were the earliest type of local government. By 1875 there were 314, but after 1876 many were replaced by county councils. Meanwhile, central government maintained some major roads.
Under the Land Act 1885, people buying Crown land had to pay one-third of the purchase price to the local authority for roading. From 1896, those leasing Crown land had to pay one-third of their rental (or one-quarter for small grazing runs) towards roads.
New Zealand’s mountainous, swampy and forested landscape made road-building hard work. Before motorised graders, roads were formed using picks and shovels. Some farmers supplemented their income by building roads.
At first, people used fords and ferries to cross rivers. Bridges were safer, but the North Island’s steep gorges and the South Island’s wide riverbeds made them difficult to build. Earthquake risk and different types of foundation rock had to be considered. Many wooden and iron bridges were built from the 1870s as part of a public works programme initiated by Premier Julius Vogel. From the 1960s pre-stressed concrete bridges that could carry heavier loads replaced many of these early structures.
Taking a heavy toll
Money for road and bridge maintenance was sometimes raised by collecting tolls. This was unpopular, and toll booths and gates were occasionally vandalised. In Taranaki in the late 19th century, settlers ripped the toll gates off the Kāpuni bridge and threw them into the ravine below.
Roads in the motor age
From around 1900 horse-drawn vehicles were gradually replaced by cars and trucks, which were numerous by the 1920s. Many existing roads could not withstand the wear of motor traffic, which needed hard, preferably sealed, surfaces. From 1922 the state defined and maintained major highways. Local authorities continued to look after rural roads, with subsidies from a national fund.
Motor cars were popular with farmers for both business and pleasure. By the late 1920s, some rural areas had a much higher rate of car ownership than towns. From that decade, school and public bus services also gave rural people more transport options.
The car had a profound effect on rural society. It gave country people access to amenities like shops and picture theatres, previously available only to town dwellers. Some businesses became centralised in larger towns.
Close to the edge
In the 1990s, George Gillingham described a spectacular journey by rail and road ‘over the hill’ between the West Coast and Canterbury when he was a child. Before the early 1920s, a horse-drawn coach transported passengers between Ōtira and Arthur’s Pass. The route was very steep, with some sheer drops beside the road: ‘How those outside horses really pushed on to the inside horses to get away from the edge of the hill I will never forget.’ 1
From the 1920s trucks were used to collect milk and cream cans from farms and deliver them to dairy factories. They also carried farming supplies and produce further afield. Until then, most long-distance freight was carried by New Zealand Railways, which charged low rates for farming equipment, stock and produce, subsidised by high rates for general goods and imports. Road freight companies could now compete by undercutting prices and providing a door-to-door service.
In 1931 the Transport Licensing Act strictly regulated road freighting, and a 30-mile (48-kilometre) limit was imposed on road freight in 1936. However, this did not apply to privately owned trucks, and many farmers transported goods in their own vehicles until the mid-1950s. Gradually restrictions on road carriers were lifted, and the industry flourished from the 1970s.
Roads in the 2000s
In the early 2000s there were road user charges for diesel vehicles and all vehicles over 3.5 tonnes – mostly freight trucks. This income went into the National Land Transport Fund and was allocated to the New Zealand Transport Authority (the national roading authority, formerly Transit New Zealand), and local authorities. Most funding was spent on heavily used urban roads and state highways; in country areas road maintenance was largely covered by local rates. Charges on road freight companies and allocation of road funding remain hot issues for rural people.