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Frequently asked questions

Updated: 20 December 2012

Why are roads built where they are? What's the highest highway in New Zealand? How are state highways numbered? What's the difference between a motorway and an expressway? Here you can find the answers to these and other commonly asked questions about our state highway network.

Why is our destination signage green and white?

We adopted the Australian signage standards to provide consistency for tourists.

Why are there no signs in Auckland pointing the way to Wellington?

When you're travelling at 100km/h you can only read and absorb three to four lines in a sign - so we limit the information they show for practical reasons.

Destination signs work in geographical packages, generally pointing the way to the nearest main centre, such as from Auckland to Hamilton.

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Can I put up an advertising sign beside a state highway?

There are a number of factors to consider before you can put up a sign beside a state highway. Find out more.

Why are our highways called 'state highways'?

The term 'state highway' differentiates between local roads, built and maintained by local authorities, and the national state highway network. 'State', in the sense used here, is an older term meaning 'government'.

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Why are New Zealand roads chipsealed?

Almost without exception, our roads are surfaced using bitumen, not concrete. That's because bitumen:

  • is flexible
  • copes with variable temperatures
  • suits lower volumes of traffic
  • is cheaper to construct.

While some of our high-traffic roads have a smooth asphaltic concrete ('bitumen hotmix') surface, most have a chipseal (sprayed bitumen film with a coating of stones on top).

Many other countries (including South Africa, Australia, Canada and the United States) have extensive networks of chipsealed roads in rural areas.

Find out more about road pavements and surfacings.

What is the longest straight road on the state highway network?

State Highway 7 through Culverden in the South Island has a straight section 13.7km long. Some local roads on the Canterbury Plains have even longer straights.

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What is the highest state highway in New Zealand?

State Highway 1 between Turangi and Waiouru (the Desert Road) is the highest pass on the state highway network at about 1074 metres above sea level. The highest state highway is SH48 Bruce Road leading to the Whakapapa Village in the central North Island at approximately 1153 metres.

As a matter of interest, the highest sealed local road pass is the Crown Range Road in Central Otago between Queenstown and Wanaka at about 1076 metres.

How do you choose where to put roads?

New Zealand's roads were mostly developed from original bullock tracks. However, our ancestors took the line of least resistance - going around swamps, hills and sometimes alongside rivers until they found good points to cross, because it was easier, even though it took a while.

Formed roads eventually began to appear for traffic going to and from ports, goldfields, farms and elsewhere. Today's highways carry heavy, sophisticated and expensive vehicles, but might well lie on the foundations of bullock tracks established 150 years ago.

This means many New Zealand roads are far from being straight lines - they reflect our topography and the changing patterns of economic and social development.

In choosing where to put roads today, we aim to strike a balance between what is best for the country's economy and environment, what will satisfy people's needs and improve their safety and what we can afford to build.

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What's the difference between a state highway and a local road?

State highways are those roads in New Zealand that form a nationally strategic purpose in moving people and goods nationwide. For example State Highway 1 runs the entire length of New Zealand. State highways are a Crown asset that we manage on behalf of the central government.

Local roads are those roads that form a regionally strategic purpose in moving people and goods within regions. These roads are managed by local government.

How are our state highways paid for?

Most of the money comes from taxes and charges paid by road users. Find out more.

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What is the busiest stretch of road in New Zealand?

State Highway 1 in central Auckland is the busiest road in New Zealand, carrying more than 200,000 vehicles a day. Find out more about state highway traffic volumes.

How many kilometres of motorway are there in New Zealand?

The state highway network has about 199 kilometres of motorway, with most in Auckland. Motorways carry 10 percent of New Zealand's traffic.

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When did New Zealand first get a motorway?

The first section of motorway ran for three miles (4.8 kilometres) between Takapu Road and Johnsonville in Wellington. It opened in December 1950 as part of the main approach to Wellington city. For comparison, the first motorway in the United Kingdom opened in 1959.

Do trucks wear roads out faster than cars?

Yes. A vehicle weighing two tonnes is 16 times more damaging to the road than a vehicle weighing one tonne. Heavier vehicles pay for this extra wear through higher road user charges.

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How many kilometres of state highway are there?

The state highway network has almost 11,000 kilometres of road, with 5981.3km in the North Island and 4924.4km in the South Island. It provides a vital link to almost 83,000km of local roads - 17,298.3km urban and 65,600.7km rural. The length of road per person in New Zealand is one of the highest in the world.

Road statistics Local roads State highways
Total length 83,000km 11,000km
Sealed 61% 100%
Urban : Rural 20% : 80% -
Responsibility Local authorities NZTA

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How much is the state highway network worth?

The state highway network is one of New Zealand's most valuable assets, and is worth $23 billion.

How much does it cost to maintain the state highways?

The total amount spent on road infrastructure in the 2008/09 financial year, including local roads as well as state highways, was about $2.2 billion.

Road infrastructure costs in 2008/09 Local roads State highways
Road maintenance and renewals $766,000,000 $430,000,000
Road improvement $268,000,000 $772,000,000
TOTAL $1,034,000,000 $1,202,000,000

Find out more about what we're spending.

Road maintenance costs

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How do New Zealanders travel?

Around 70 percent of all freight in New Zealand goes by road, and over 80 percent of people go to work by car, truck or motorcycle - but public transport use has risen.

Mode share of journeys to work

Passenger transport boardings

What's the difference between a motorway and an expressway?

Motorways are access-controlled, high-speed roads that normally have 'grade-separated intersections' - which means they have overbridges (or underpasses) so road users don't have to stop at traffic lights.

Expressways are also high-speed roads, but they may include well-spaced 'at-grade intersections' - which means they often have accesses and driveways on to them and sometimes traffic signals or roundabouts.

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Are our roads built with speed in mind?

Yes. New roads are designed for vehicles travelling at the legal speed limit, except where the countryside makes this too expensive to achieve. In that case, the design incorporates features that make it clear to drivers that a lower speed is essential.

The yellow curve advisory speed signs on roads are designed to give drivers enough information to negotiate curves comfortably and safely in all weather conditions.

Why do I sometimes see signs warning about cement splashes and telling me to wash my vehicle?

These signs are displayed when lime or cement has been used to strengthen the road. These substances will dry rock hard underneath your vehicle if you don't wash them off quickly.

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How can I avoid my windscreen being broken by flying chips from the road?

The best way is to keep to the speed limit displayed on the road. Loose chips will inevitably get thrown up at your windscreen if you travel at speed.

How are state highways numbered?

The most important highways are numbered within the block 1-10:

  • State Highway 1 is the only highway that runs the full length of the country, from Cape Reinga in the north to Bluff at the bottom of the South Island.
  • State Highways 2-5 are the key North Island highways.
  • State Highways 6-9 are the key South Island highways.

The remaining highways are numbered according to the locality:

  • State Highways 11-19 are in Northland/Auckland.
  • State Highways 20-29 are in Hamilton/Bay of Plenty.
  • State Highways 30-39 are in Hawke's Bay/Gisborne.
  • State Highways 40-49 are in Wanganui/Taranaki.
  • State Highways 50-59 are in Wellington/Manawatu.
  • State Highways 60-69 are in Marlborough/Nelson.
  • State Highways 70-79 are in Canterbury/West Coast.
  • State Highways 80-89 are in Otago.
  • State Highways 90-99 are in Southland.

Not all of these numbers are allocated, although SH99 runs between SH6 north of Invercargill and Clifden, near Tuatapere.

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Can interested groups improve the roadsides in their communities?

We run an Adopt-a-Highway programme for communities that want to improve their roadsides. Through the programme, individuals, organisations, service groups, business or local councils can 'adopt' a particular stretch of highway to maintain. Groups can do the work themselves or hire a contractor after first signing an agreement with us to work on the section. A commitment to undertaking the work safely is an important part of this agreement, which is for a fixed term, usually of no less than two years.

For our part, we supply safety vests, temporary traffic signs and cones, safety instructions, and a permanent road sign acknowledging the work at each end of the site. We also dispose of litter or vegetation collected at the site and contribute to the cost of plants.

To apply for the programme or find out more, contact your local NZ Transport Agency office.

Can I use the state highway for social events such as community fun runs?

We do as much as we can to support community events on the state highway. However there are many considerations that need to be taken into account.

While the options are limited on high-traffic routes (less heavily used local roads are a better alternative), we're happy to work with organisers of events on low-traffic routes to keep traffic flowing and ensure the safety of participants, spectators and road users.

For more information contact one of our offices, or read our code of practice.

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What happens if I have to do work on a state highway?

You can only do work on a state highway with an approved traffic management plan.

Traffic management plans have to be prepared by qualified site management supervisors. Check the Yellow Pages under 'Traffic Management' for providers of this service.

If you have to do necessary work (such as tree trimming or installing services for adjacent properties), please contact your local NZ Transport Agency office for more information.

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What is the policy for flying national flags from the Auckland Harbour Bridge?

The NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) receives regular requests for flags to be flown on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Generally the New Zealand flag is the only flag that will be flown from the bridge.

The Government will determine whether any other flags may be flown from the bridge and on what occasions.