Story: Transport – overview

Page 4. Motor vehicles

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Motor cars arrived in New Zealand at the end of the 19th century, but were expensive to buy and run. Their numbers remained low until after the First World War. Falling prices due to mass production, and a decline in fuel costs, led to the rapid adoption of the car, particularly in rural areas, between the world wars. Public transport also became increasingly motorised, with service cars in rural areas, and buses in urban centres.

A faster force

Policing in both town and country was profoundly affected by motorisation. Despite the appointment of some community constables, local police stations closed, and police used motor vehicles to reach incidents in the suburbs or the countryside.

Country life

Small settlements lost their retail businesses as rural customers drove into larger towns to take advantage of wider choice and cheaper prices. The use of local halls declined as more sophisticated and varied urban entertainment came within reach. Hundreds of small dairy factories closed as cream lorries allowed large enterprises with wider catchment areas to develop. From the mid-1920s the introduction of school buses accelerated the closure of small country schools. Even the numbers of rural doctors dwindled, as they were among the first to acquire motor cars.

Towns and cities

Factories no longer had to be located on railway lines, so industrial areas in towns spread. Suburban housing began to stretch out into the countryside, beyond tramlines. Urban holidaymakers were no longer limited to resorts that could be reached by tram or rail, and motor camps proliferated at distant beaches.

Container cargo

In the second half of the 20th century containerisation had a particularly dramatic impact on shipping, with container vessels and roll-on, roll-off ships becoming dominant. Shipping movements became concentrated on those ports that installed container cranes, and the workforce on the wharves shrank. The real cost of transporting cargo, particularly internationally, was greatly reduced.

Effects on sea and rail transport

The internal combustion engine gradually took over shipping and rail transport, helped by the declining real price of oil fuels. Motor ships with diesel engines were faster, extracted more power for the same weight of fuel, and needed smaller crews than steamships, which they replaced after the First World War. Diesel–electric locomotives, introduced on the railways from 1949, also used less bulky fuel and saved on labour. By the 1970s steam locomotives were museum pieces, used occasionally for special excursions.

Increase in motor traffic

Registrations of private cars rose dramatically in the late 20th century. Buses largely replaced electric tramways, trolley buses and cable cars in the 1950s, but were forced to rely on subsidies as commuters chose to use private rather than public transport. The resulting traffic jams and parking problems necessitated motorway and parking-building construction. From the 1980s, a deregulated road freight industry competed fiercely with the corporatised and then privatised railways.

Impact on retailing

Retailing adjusted to the spread of car ownership, with the construction of vast car parks beside suburban supermarkets and malls. ‘Drive-through’ fast-food chains were established. The high costs of establishing large outlets that could serve customers with cars meant these developments were generally initiated by big, sometimes international, businesses.

More rural change

The widespread use of tankers to collect whole milk led to further mergers in the dairy industry and the establishment of large factories, eventually serving whole regions. Saleyards closed, as did many country racecourses. The closure of country hospitals began, and the consolidation of rural schools continued. Increasing private-car ownership meant that suburban housing sprawled further into the countryside, 10-acre (4-hectare) ‘lifestyle blocks’ became popular with commuters, and beachside baches (holiday homes) proliferated.

The compulsory car

Dramatic increases in oil prices during the 1970s and early 1980s prompted some drivers to slow down and move to smaller cars – but long-term, they simply spent more of their income on fuel. Because of the erosion of public transport and adaptation of services to the private motor vehicle, many had little choice.

The removal of controls and tariffs on vehicle imports during the 1980s reduced prices considerably and brought a flood of second-hand Japanese cars into the country. This, and low fuel prices, greatly boosted registrations. More young people, some of them ‘boy racers’, acquired cars. Large four-wheel drive vehicles – often just used in towns and cities – became extremely popular with those who could afford them. Between 1979 and 1998 the total distance travelled by motor vehicles doubled. Although numbers of registered vehicles had grown considerably, it did not explain this huge increase. It seemed likely that people were making greater use of motor transport.

How to cite this page:

James Watson, 'Transport – overview - Motor vehicles', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/transport-overview/page-4 (accessed 19 September 2021)

Story by James Watson, published 11 Mar 2010