Nicknamed ‘the coat hanger’ by many making the daily 1.15km commute across its eight-lane expanse, the Auckland Harbour Bridge is an architectural icon bridging the gap in a metropolitan city of two halves.
Back in the day before the Sky Tower, to have an uninterrupted view of the Harbour Bridge from your home was really something to be proud of and without a doubt attracted a pretty premium to vendors upon the sale of a house.
Life pre-construction in the 1950s meant facing a time-consuming 50km drive or coal-burning ferry trip to connect to the ‘sleepy seaside’ North Shore, which was then little more than a weekend and public holiday destination.
Judgeing by the archives, the road to build the steel cantilever truss bridge was fairly chequered. Failed proposals date back to 1860 and sadly, four lives were lost during its four-year construction.
Only after the appointment of a royal commission in 1946 did the ‘austerity bridge’ design by Freeman Fox and Partners get the official approval.
But it wasn’t the complete answer to the publics’ ‘wish list’. Five lanes morphed into a four-lane compromise and the proposed footpaths were axed, which pedestrians and cyclists have been battling to get back ever since.
“We want a liveable city. If a city is not cyclable or walkable
it is just not liveable.”
– Bevan Woodward –
Costing £5 million ($245 million in today’s terms) and built by two contractors, Dorman Long Company Limited and Cleveland Bridge Engineering Company, the Harbour Bridge started out life in 1959 as a toll bridge.
A decade later there was a mounting problem. The volume of cars using it was close approaching 15 million, three times more than the commission’s original projections. A cost-effective solution had to be found and fast.
The answer was the infamous ‘Nippon Clip-ons’, which extended the bridge to eight lanes and effectively doubled its capacity to handle the influx across this country’s main artery, State Highway 1.
By 1984 after the loans were fully repaid, the tolls were discontinued. By the nineties the Harbour Bridge led the world with the first permanent moveable barrier installation.
Today more than a billion cars have travelled across it (165,000 daily), you can bungy off it and climb it (legally as part of an approved tourist attraction) and on the odd occasion, walk or cycle across it.
Flags fly from the top of the apex, a job managed by the New Zealand Transport Agency. When asked about the flag protocol, spokeswoman Sarah Azam clarifies, “which flags can and cannot be flown is a government decision made by the Ministries of Transport and Culture and Heritage.”
More change might be on the horizon for the Harbour Bridge in the form of a proposal for a SkyPath, a ‘subtle addition’ that would connect all users, which has won the support of 10,000 to date.
“We want a liveable city. If a city is not cyclable or walkable it is just not liveable,” believes Auckland Harbour Bridge Pathway Trustee and Project Director, Bevan Woodward.
Internationally he rates the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco as a shining example of how you can successfully integrate walkers, cyclists and vehicles as part of a well-funded transport policy.
The trust, which formed in 2010, means business and has attracted the likes of patron Sir Bob Harvey and one of New Zealand’s top landscape and urban designers to the team.
“The SkyPath is essentially another ‘clip-on to the clip-on’ that basically follows the outline and gradient the bridge and will be built. Built using a series of composite (carbon fibre-reinforced low-weight fibreglass) beams that will be fully enclosed with five observation decks,” says designer Garth Falconer from Reset Urban.
Access, he says, would be from under the bridge from either Westhaven or Northcote ends. The shared path for cyclists and walkers and observation decks “would provide an opportunity for people take in the magnificent views.”
The build-time projected would be reasonably quick due to it being constructed as a modular clip-on structure by the same company that built all the Oracle boats for the America’s Cup.
After successfully achieving resource consent, the Auckland Harbour Bridge Pathway Trust is currently working through resolving an appeal made by three parties (two resident groups and a preservation society) based on parking, design and operational impacts.
The designer says the proposal has tried hard to compensate all of those factors and addressed all of the concerns to the satisfaction of the independent commissioners.
Advocates for the design say some of the positive benefits will include congestion relief from an increase in people commuting to work in the city by walking or cycling as well as carbon emission reduction.
“We’re keen to get on with it and provide the facility. It’s been legally voted as the most popular visionary project in Auckland and as a result, attracted a lot of support. It makes a lot of sense for people who wish to walk and cycle across in the central city.”
Time will tell if the $37 million project gets off the ground and is completed by 2017 as projected.
In the meantime, Auckland Harbour Bridge goes beyond bridging the gap. It’s more than an iconic fixture on the visual landscape, a commuting corridor, a vital economic link, a crucial piece of infrastructure, a marathon course and a historic Hikoi protest path – it’s actually a national treasure.
Words: Sarah Sparks