Most New Zealand towns were first laid out in a grid plan. The usual pattern was for shops and houses to develop along a principal street or two, with new streets and buildings gradually filling in the grid as the population grew. The physical size of 19th-century towns was restricted by walking distances. New growth was generally accommodated through denser settlement rather than outward expansion. This encouraged the subdivision of land into smaller and smaller allotments, often leading to the creation of narrow streets and lanes.
World’s steepest straight street
The rigidity of the grid – which took no account of the lay of the land – led to the creation of Dunedin’s Baldwin Street. With a grade of 35˚ (1:2.86), it is recognised as the steepest street in the world. Each summer it is the site of the ‘Baldwin Street Gutbuster’, in which athletes try to run from the bottom to the top and back again. The event attracts up to 1,000 competitors.
The Municipal Corporations Act 1867 defined the required widths of streets. The borough engineer’s approval was required before street construction could go ahead. If developers did not complete the work to standard, streets would not be taken over and maintained by the council. Similar requirements were introduced for county councils and roads boards under the Public Works Act 1876.
These requirements were initially difficult to enforce. Land developers often dominated councils or pressured councillors not to adhere strictly to standards. New streets were named terraces or crescents to avoid standard road widths, and councillors with land interests approved their own substandard streets. A revised Municipal Corporations Act in 1900 enforced regulations more strictly, evident in suburban areas developed after the Act. Planning of new subdivisions was more thorough, with wider and better street layouts.
Trams and footpaths
The electrification of tramways also affected street construction. Trams needed wide streets to run along. Where routes ran through existing streets they often had to be widened, and corner splays created to facilitate turning. The rapid growth in the number of motor vehicles in the 1920s saw pedestrians sidelined to footpaths, and streets given over to vehicle traffic. This led to the reconstruction of streets to allow better visibility at intersections. Pedestrian crossings and traffic lights were also introduced to discourage jaywalking and to control traffic flows.
Wellington’s first traffic lights were introduced at the main city intersections in 1931. Their aim was to speed up traffic flows, but at first they had the opposite effect. Only one tram could get through before the lights changed, causing traffic to back up and tempers to fray. Traffic engineers soon re-phased the lights so two trams could get through.
Town planning and motorways
Town planning requirements also shaped the layout and width of streets, particularly after the 1950s. Increasing congestion meant traffic flows had to be better managed, which involved identifying where different street widths were needed. Increasing traffic volumes led to the introduction of one-way street systems in the 1960s to relieve congestion – sometimes making navigation difficult for city visitors.
The transport planning initiative that had the biggest impact was the building of urban motorways through Auckland and Wellington in the 1960s and 1970s. Their aim was to relieve traffic congestion by diverting cross-city traffic away from the inner-city streets. However each project necessitated the destruction of some historic communities – areas of Newton and Grafton in Auckland, and Thorndon in Wellington. By the early 2000s central Auckland was almost entirely encircled or crossed by motorways.
National standards and practice
Central government had been involved in the development of standards for street construction since the establishment of the Main Highway Board in 1922, leading to the comprehensive Code of practice for the design for urban roading, published by the National Roads Board in 1969. The introduction of national standards led to consistency in the width, construction and layout of streets.