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Transport – overview

by James Watson

Early transport in New Zealand was mostly on water – by canoe and sailing vessel, and later by steamship. On land, people walked, rode horses, or used them to pull vehicles. Later, steam dominated, and then the internal combustion engine was developed, opening the way for motor transport and aviation. In the 2000s the private motor car was king.

Transport trends

Transport allows people or goods to be moved between places. In the past, it was also the main way of transferring information, through mail or by oral accounts from travellers. Means of transport include walking; human-powered or sail-driven water craft; animals and animal-powered vehicles; and machine-powered vehicles on land and water and in the air.

Adopting new transport

Reasons for adopting new forms of transport include greater speed and comfort, more freedom of choice, and prestige from travelling in the new way. Sometimes purchase and running costs have limited the uptake of new transport technology, especially for commercial carrying of goods. However, speed and reliability of service can outweigh these costs.

19th-century transport

In New Zealand for much of the 19th century, water transport – by waka (canoe), sailing vessel and then steamship – was best for long journeys and for moving cargo. Later, people preferred to travel by rail and, in many towns, by tram. Steam locomotives competed strongly with steamships for hauling cargo. Away from navigable waterways and railway lines, animal-powered transport using bullocks – and, increasingly, horses – remained a flexible form of carrying goods and people over shorter distances. People walked where other options were unavailable, impractical or too expensive, but bicycles increasingly offered an efficient alternative.

20th-century transport

Early in the 20th century motor transport began to challenge the dominance of steam. Its main advantage was greater personal freedom. During the interwar period motor vehicles became so widespread that they were the dominant form of land transport. Meanwhile the internal combustion engine had been adapted for powered aircraft, and diesel-engined ships gradually replaced steamers. In the later 20th century jets made flying cheaper and faster. They became the first choice for travel over long distances and for transporting valuable and perishable products.

Let your fingers do the driving

Continued rapid progress in electronic communications has raised hopes that travel for shopping, leisure and work will be reduced. It probably helped explain the increase in the proportion of those working at home – from 8.3% in 1996 to 9.2% a decade later.

Transport in the 2000s

In the early 2000s most people used private motor cars for everyday travel. The number of New Zealanders for each licensed car dropped from 2.03 to 1.86 between 2000 and 2006. The proportion of workers who drove to work increased from 63.2% in 1996 to 65.3% in 2006, while the proportion of those walking, jogging, travelling as passengers or bicycling fell. A surge in oil prices and the cost of petrol in 2007 and 2008 almost certainly had some effect on car use. However, the development of large malls and of ‘big barn’ retailing, which mainly depended on private motor transport, continued. Motor transport remained the main way of shifting goods. Despite considerable economic growth, the volume of freight carried by rail increased by less than 1% between 2000 and 2006.

International air travel also remained pervasive. The number of New Zealanders departing overseas for less than 12 months in 2008/9 was 64% greater than in 1998/99, slightly more than the increase in short-term international visitors. The financial crisis that began in 2008 affected the tourist industry, but represented only a minor reversal of the trend.

Climate change concerns

In the early 2000s there were concerns about emissions from motor vehicles and jet aircraft contributing to global climate change, with commentators labelling the growing level of dependence on fossil-fuel-based transport as unsustainable in the long term. However, this did not significantly affect people’s transport choices. Although ‘hybrid’ petrol and electric cars provided little competition to those driven by petrol alone, some saw these alternatives as offering solutions to the emissions problem.

Before motor transport

Waka (canoes)

Double-hulled sailing canoes brought Polynesians to New Zealand. The need to travel along narrow streams encouraged the development of single-hulled waka. Most were simple dugouts, made from the large trees abundant in New Zealand. Some were large waka taua, which could be more than 30 metres long, capable of carrying 100 warriors. Usually they were propelled by paddles, or by poles if travelling against the current on fast-flowing rivers. On open water, if there was a tail wind, triangular sails were used. In the Chatham Islands the Moriori travelled long distances in waka made from sticks. These ‘wash-through’ craft floated deep in the water.

Travelling by waka allowed Māori to transport large loads and avoid difficult journeys over steep and forested terrain. The craft were sometimes dragged or carried across obstacles to get to other waterways. They were used long after the arrival of Europeans. For example, in the 1840s and 1850s Waikato Māori transported agricultural produce to Auckland by waka.

Foot travel

Māori also used footpaths, often formed along ridges to limit the danger of ambush. They sometimes wore sandals made from flax to protect their feet from stones. Streams were crossed using felled trees as bridges, and rivers using raupō mōkihi (rafts made from bulrush reeds) or dugout waka left on the bank for the purpose. Some long overland journeys were made to carry pounamu (greenstone) from the West Coast of the South Island across mountains to the east or north.

New Zealand made

In the early 1870s the scow, a flat-bottomed sailing ship with a wide beam capable of resting upright on mud or sand, was developed in north Auckland to operate in its shallow bays and estuaries and over the coral reefs around Pacific islands. Scows carried large quantities of timber, much of it kauri, milled in northern New Zealand.

Sailing ships

The voyages of Abel Tasman in 1642–43 and James Cook in the 1760s and 1770s were made in sailing ships, as were the visits of other European explorers. Demand for timber and flax rope to construct and repair sailing ships was a major reason for European interest in New Zealand. From 1840 the settlements of Wellington, Nelson, New Plymouth, Dunedin and Christchurch were established rapidly because large numbers of settlers could be carried directly from Britain on large sailing vessels. More migrants arrived on sailing ships until late in the century.

Sailing vessels built for the stormy coastal waters of north-west Europe proved useful in New Zealand. Whaleboats with sails and oars (which supplied more power through leverage than paddles) were often used for sea travel, especially in the south. Small sailing vessels were built locally to navigate coastal waters.

Animal transport

Animal-powered transport was rapidly adopted by Māori. For hauling heavy loads on sleds where roads were bad or nonexistent, the bullock was ideal. It was strong, did not require special feeding, and was a by-product of the beef industry. Horses were more expensive to buy and to maintain, but they were faster and more prestigious. Missionaries and other travellers who could not afford horses had to walk. Sometimes people shared a horse, taking turns to alternately ride and walk.

Wheeled vehicles

As taxes funded the development of better roads, bullock- and horse-drawn vehicles became common. Wheeled vehicles, including drays, wagons and carriages, could carry more goods and people. People also pushed wheelbarrows and handcarts, sometimes for considerable distances.

Early bicycles – velocipedes, driven by pedals connected directly to the hub of the front wheel, and penny-farthings, with large front and small rear wheels – gained some popularity from the late 1860s. However, the sturdy safety bicycle with vulcanised rubber tyres was introduced in the mid-1890s, and proved best able to cope with New Zealand’s rough roads. Cheaper to buy and maintain than a horse, it was used for commuting, sport and recreation, and for deliveries of mail and goods in towns. Rural workers also travelled between farms or into town on bicycles.

Transport and settlement

The difficulty of land travel meant that the first settlements were established on the coast. Inland settlements often developed at breaks in transport routes, such as river fords, where people could stay the night before undertaking the crossing. Many such settlements grew to serve both travellers and local people.

Transport, production and consumption

Because transporting goods was so slow and expensive, settlers in remote areas tended to produce durable products, such as wool. It was cheaper to use local materials such as raupō (bulrush) or cob (a mixture of mud and straw) to build rural dwellings. Consumption patterns were also affected; in the mid-19th century spirits were cheaper than beer, which was bulkier to transport.

Steam transport

Although horses, horse-drawn vehicles and sailing vessels remained important means of transport in the late 19th century, steam gradually became dominant.


By 1840 steamships were operating around the coast of Britain and across the Atlantic, although they still relied on sails most of the time. HMS Driver was the first such hybrid vessel to visit New Zealand, in 1845, and a locally built paddle steamer, Governor Wynyard, was launched in Auckland in 1851. In the later 1850s coastal and trans-Tasman services were established, heavily subsidised by central and provincial governments to provide reliable mail transport. In the 1860s small steamers began operating on sheltered coastal waters, up rivers and across lakes. The military used them as gunboats and to carry supplies in the New Zealand wars.

Catching the breeze

Long after steamships had replaced sail on the shorter, more popular migration routes from Europe to the Americas, migrants travelled on sailing ships to New Zealand from Europe on the Great Circle Route, catching the trade winds through the tropics before plunging south to pick up the fierce winds across the Southern Ocean.

The development of compound engines, which used the steam generated twice, and the move from paddles to screw propulsion, made the sea voyage from Europe to New Zealand cheaper. From the mid-1880s the triple-expansion engine, which used the steam three times, and the development of the frozen-meat trade with Britain, made voyages profitable without government subsidies.

Steam trains

Once central and provincial governments with the power to borrow had been established, railways were built. The first line using steam locomotives was opened between Christchurch and Ferrymead in 1863 by the Canterbury Provincial Council. However, it was not until the great surge in government borrowing promoted by Julius Vogel in the 1870s that substantial construction occurred. By 1880 there were almost 2,000 kilometres of line, and by 1920, 4,837 kilometres. There were also ‘bush tramways’, built and operated by timber companies to transport logs to sawmills. The longest bush tramway was the 82-kilometre line of the Taupo Totara Timber Company, between Mōkai and Putaruru.

Trams and cable cars

Trams were developed in many New Zealand towns from the 1870s, expanding the extent and patronage of public transport. There were also cable cars in the hilly cities of Dunedin and Wellington. The first trams were horse-drawn, but steam locomotives were occasionally used to haul trams, and the cableways were initially powered directly by steam. In the early 20th century steam power was used to produce electricity for tramways, and extensive new lines were laid for electric trams by municipalities and sometimes by private companies.

Steam road transport

The technology of road transport was not greatly changed by steam power. However, traction engines were widely used on highways in grain-growing areas such as Canterbury, Otago, Southland and Hawke’s Bay, where their ability to tow heavy loads was a useful sideline to their use in agriculture. A few steam-driven road vehicles also appeared.

Social and economic impacts

Steam transport connected New Zealand’s settlements more closely. It created wider, often national, markets for locally produced goods, and supported the development of national political parties, commercial organisations and sporting competitions. It promoted internal and international tourism.

Within towns it also fostered commercial and social links, making it easier to live in suburbs and commute to the centre. Steam transport, particularly trains, encouraged considerable development away from the existing coastal centres of population. Railway construction, maintenance and operation provided significant new employment.

Industrial development

Railways and steamships made the transport of heavy goods much more economic. Rail allowed timber-milling to spread, which helped farming to grow by giving settlers an initial source of income. The development of coal mining, usually in quite isolated areas, depended on the cheaper heavy cartage provided by steam transport. Mining was further boosted by the demand for coal to power steam trains.

Other industries developed along railways in order to reduce transport costs for fuel, raw materials and products. The most important was meat processing. Large freezing works developed on rail lines, typically close to ports. Animals were brought in by rail and carcasses sent out in refrigerated wagons. The first exports of frozen meat were on sailing ships, but steamers offered more predictable and quicker voyage times. Exports of dairy products benefited similarly, and milk was often collected by rail for processing in larger factories.

Motor vehicles

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.

Air travel

The greater power-to-weight ratio of the internal combustion engine made air travel possible. The attractions of aircraft (besides novelty and the new views they provided) were their speed, their capacity to cross both land and water, and the comparatively limited infrastructure they required.

Early New Zealand flights

Richard Pearse achieved the first ‘powered take-off’ in New Zealand in South Canterbury in 1903, shortly before the Wright brothers, but New Zealand’s first sustained, controlled flight is credited to Vivian Walsh at Papakura, Auckland, in February 1911. Private enterprises, like Henry Wigram’s Canterbury Aviation Company, provided training, joyrides and mail transport early on. The first regular licensed air service for passengers began on the West Coast in 1934, and two years later Union Airways had services connecting Dunedin and Auckland.

International connections

In 1928 Charles Kingsford Smith and his crew crossed the Tasman Sea in the Southern Cross, the first flight to New Zealand from the outside world. Within a decade aircraft were an alternative to shipping for transporting people and goods (mainly mail) to and from New Zealand. A flying boat service between the United States and Auckland was operated briefly by Pan-American Airways in 1937 and 1940–41. A service to Australia was established by Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) in 1940. For most New Zealanders domestic air travel, let alone international flights, remained unusual until the 1960s, but the rich and powerful appreciated the speed with which aircraft took them around the country and overseas.

1940s aviation developments

Continuing aviation developments, some for military use during the Second World War, helped air transport grow in New Zealand. From 1949 the aerial topdressing industry began, using ex-military aircraft and pilots. This led to intensive farming of hill-country pastures, particularly in the North Island, and a massive increase in stock numbers.

The jet engine

Jet propulsion made air travel faster and much cheaper, and allowed perishable goods to be transported long distances. The first jet to arrive in New Zealand was a Gloster Meteor in 1946. Its speed was demonstrated throughout the country by Squadron Leader Bob McKay. Jet technology was first introduced on internal routes, with jet-prop aircraft such as the Vickers Viscount (1958) and the Fokker Friendship (1961). In 1959 TEAL began flying jet-prop Lockheed Electras across the Tasman. The first international jet service was established between London and Auckland by BOAC in 1963, using a De Havilland Comet. Two years later Air New Zealand began a service to Los Angeles using DC8 jets.

Flying and sport

The advent of jumbo jets influenced the frequency and nature of sports competitions. Previously widely-spaced international sporting tours were transformed into annual events, and professional rugby franchises in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa competed in a joint annual contest.

Jets, travel and tourism

In the early 1970s wide-bodied (‘jumbo’) jets heralded a new age of cheaper and faster international travel for New Zealanders and boosted tourism. In 1999–2000, 1.65 million overseas visitors came to New Zealand, compared with around 70,000 in 1959–60. Some arrived on cruise ships, but they too had typically travelled by jet to join the cruise. There were almost 1.2 million short-term departures of New Zealanders overseas that year, compared with fewer than 40,000 in 1959–60.

Emigration and immigration

Emigration and immigration were also facilitated by international air travel. Queensland became an attractive retirement option for many New Zealanders, while higher wages and novelty drew younger people to Australia in droves, undoubtedly helped by the much lower cost and greater ease of air travel. Britain remained a major focus for young New Zealanders on their often extended ‘OE’ (overseas experience), but the flexibility of air transport also opened up a wider range of destinations in North America and Asia. From the 1970s and 1980s increased immigration from a wider range of countries could be traced to diversification of air routes as well as changes in immigration policies.


Helicopters reached New Zealand in the 1950s. They were rapidly deployed for agricultural spraying, and for transporting workers and materials to inaccessible places. From the 1960s they were used for commercial hunting of deer. They proved ideal for search and rescue, and for rapidly transporting seriously ill patients to hospital.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: James Watson, 'Transport – overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

Story by James Watson, published 11 Mar 2010