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‘Take it easy – take the train’

Auckland commuters arrive at the Britomart Transport Centre during the morning rush hour

Auckland commuters arrive at the Britomart Transport Centre during the morning rush hour

Record growth in the number of commuters using public transport in Auckland highlights how quickly information and trends can change – a challenge for any encyclopedia. Te Ara’s entries on Public Transport and Railways aren’t that old; they were published in the Economy and the City theme in 2010, and acknowledged that public transport patronage had rallied since the 1990s and early 2000s. Over the last decade, though, that revival has become a revolution – especially in a city most assumed was as car-crazy as Los Angeles, and always would be.

In August 2015 Auckland Transport reported that the city’s rail journeys over the previous 12 months had reached 14 million – the highest total ever recorded and 21% up on the previous year. Since the early 1990s, when barely a million Aucklanders rode a run-down, neglected suburban rail system, growth has been spectacular: the 2014/15 total was more than double the 2007/08 figure of 6.8 million, which was itself more than twice the 3.2 million recorded in 2002/03. As this chart illustrates, the surge in Auckland commuter numbers means that more New Zealanders are taking the train today than at any time since the early 1960s.

While the most dramatic recent growth has been on the rails, more people are also travelling on Auckland’s much more extensive bus network, with 57 million journeys in the year to March 2015, an 8.5% increase over the previous year. Numbers using the Northern Express busway were up 17%. Even ferry services recorded a 5% increase, with a total of 5.4 million trips. Overall, Auckland’s public transport journeys to March 2015 totalled 78 million, an increase of 10% on the year before.

Rather than just being an exercise in updating statistics, significant changes like this invite us to reassess the way we think about our cities. As Te Ara’s Public Transport and Railways entries explain, all major New Zealand cities experienced a significant decline in public transport patronage during the second half of the 20th century, an era when the car was king. As a result, in the 1990s and early 2000s New Zealand, and Auckland especially, had one of the lowest rates of public transport use in the world. Most people still commute by car of course, and we shouldn’t overstate the rise of public transit. But the recent turnaround is historically significant, and is one of a number of trends that are reshaping New Zealand’s largest city.

Similarly, for decades we’ve thought of Wellington as New Zealand’s rail-commuter capital. Patronage there has also grown since the early 2000s, and with more than 12 million rail journeys in 2014/15 it’s still well ahead on a per capita basis. But in absolute terms Wellington’s commuter numbers are unlikely to top Auckland’s again. With 55% of all New Zealand’s public transport journeys happening there, we need to recognise Auckland as the country’s new commuter hub.

Like most revolutions, this one has a variety of causes. Public transport patronage jumped around 2008 as petrol prices rose, but has accelerated even as pump prices have fallen Traffic congestion, travel times and parking costs are all major influences; for some, concern over fossil fuels and climate change is a factor. New migrants may be more used to public transport and rail travel has also benefited from our growing dependence on smartphones, tablets and laptops, which allow commuters to work or play during their journey. Arguably the primary driver has been long-overdue investment in infrastructure and improvements to the quality and frequency of services, which have clearly unlocked significant latent demand for public transport.

The opening of the downtown Britomart Transport Centre in 2003 was a key first step, and over the last decade central government has invested heavily in upgrading and electrifying the network, duplicating tracks, building new stations, reopening the Onehunga branch line (closed since 1973) and purchasing new Spanish-built electric multiple units, the first of which entered service in April 2014. With main construction work on the 3.4-km underground Auckland City Rail Link due to start in 2018, further growth is expected.

Public transport is a fast moving environment, especially in New Zealand’s largest and most dynamic city. On current trends, 20 million rail journeys will be taken in Auckland in 2016. We may need to revisit these entries sooner rather than later.

2015’s popularity contest

It’s that time of year again when we can look back and ponder what was, so I’ve been taking a quick look at what’s been popular on our websites, especially on our two biggest sites, Te Ara and its sister site, NZHistory. It’s interesting to see where they overlap and where some of the differences are.

On Te Ara, we’ve seen a huge increase in views of our Auckland places entry, helped in large part by a lot of US visitors coming via googleusercontent.com, a Google CDN. It’s slightly mystifying but one message is clear: Google likes our content. Other popular content included our entry on Matariki, perhaps a positive sign that we’re starting to develop more local traditions and customs. And in typical fashion, interest in this list of Rugby World Cup winners peaked in October. Finally, in another sign of the power of Google, Dame Whina Cooper’s biography attracted a lot of visitors after she featured in the Google Doodle on her birthday in December.

Whina Cooper addresses a crowd during the 1975 Maori land march

Whina Cooper addresses a crowd during the 1975 Māori land march

Over on NZHistory, the perennially popular 100 Māori words every New Zealander should know was top of the list. And then the war stepped in with lots of visitors to our Gallipoli campaign and Anzac Day features. Also, as you might guess, there was a lot of interest in Flags of New Zealand (which we’ll need to update soon regardless of which way the referendum goes). I think we have to admit that from popular pages we can hear the bells of cultural identity, maybe even nationhood, ringing.

From a quick look at the search terms people are using (both on the websites and external search engines like Google) we can see some interesting themes emerging:

  • Anzac and Anzac Day
  • Auckland
  • Cave Creek
  • Dame Whina Cooper
  • Dawn raids
  • Disasters
  • First World War
  • Flags
  • Gallipoli and the campaign
  • Māori, Māori history and Māori weapons
  • Matariki
  • New Zealand history
  • New Zealand wars
  • Parihaka
  • Springbok Tour
  • The Treaty of Waitangi
  • Types of erosion, magma and soil erosion
  • Wahine and whanau

And because it’s the end of the year, here’s a word cloud. (These never go out of style, amiright?)

Popular search terms on Te Ara and NZHistory

Popular search terms on Te Ara and NZHistory

The high level of interest in the treaty bodes well for our forthcoming project, Te Taiwhakaea – Treaty settlement stories.

Finally, I mentioned the war earlier and it’s fair to say the First World War centenary programme brought a lot of traffic to all our sites this year, with major spikes on NZHistory, 28 Māori Battalion and WW100. I’ll leave you with a graph to ponder what happened around April this year.

The year's visitors

Monthly visits to all our websites

Exploring Māori content on Te Ara

Te Hono ki Hawaiki, the meeting house at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Te Hono ki Hawaiki, the meeting house at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Over the last few days I’ve been looking at content related to Māori subjects on Te Ara. This was in part inspired by a conversation earlier this year about its visibility with the former Māori editor, Basil Keane. You can find a lot of this content using the Te Reo Māori browse, which takes you through to all the translated stories. There are 127 translated stories (which doesn’t include the translated DNZB biographies) and we have a further 50 or so that we’re translating at the moment.

Looking at Te Ara’s homepage you don’t get a great sense of the richness of this content, or an idea of how much there is. For some people, they’ve found the New Zealand in Brief entry, Māori, and decided that’s all there is. A pretty poor show, is the obvious conclusion, and while we’re trying to pull people into the deeper content with links in the text, it’s possibly not the most obvious thing we can do.

If we look at our web traffic, it’s also possible to see that a lot of people go to pages from the 1966 Encyclopedia. It’s now 50 years out of date, so it’s not a great look, but where it succeeds is by having short articles on big subjects like Māori Art – a short, search-engine friendly title to encompass everything on the subject.

Te Ara, on the other hand, has quite rightly split that huge subject up into several stories and placed them in their wider context as part of the broad sweep of New Zealand subjects. So we have stories in the Visual Arts section (contemporary art, rock art, weaving and tukutuku, and carving), in Music (composers, musical instruments, and contemporary and traditional waiata), and Performing Arts (kapa haka, and theatre), to name a few.

Stories on Māori subjects appear right across Te Ara in all themes, from people to the natural world, economy and society to government, and daily and creative life. In all there are 169 stories on Māori related subjects, or roughly 17% of all 980 entries currently on Te Ara.

How we make it easier to explore and more visible on the site is an exciting challenge and one we’re keen to hear your thoughts about. For now I’ve made a spreadsheet so we can at least get a sense of what we’re trying to present. Feel free to browse it and maybe use as a starting point for exploring Te Ara:

>> Te Ara te reo and Māori content November 2015

Working how to present this content will provide a key to presenting other subjects where related entries appear across different themes. It might follow in the footsteps of what we’ve done using keywords on NZHistory to present related material, like this Te Reo subject page, or we might look at redeveloping the stories in New Zealand in Brief to act as entry points to deeper content.

Ignoring the lessons of history at Pike River

An explosion at the remote Pike River mine on 19 November 2010 killed 29 men. To mark the fifth anniversary of this disaster, a feature has been prepared on the NZHistory website outlining the background to the explosion and its aftermath.

We can look back with disbelief that such a terrible industrial accident could happen in the 21st century. The management of the Pike River mine certainly believed that their mining methods, using modern technology, were safer and more efficient than the more traditional way underground mines had been run in the past. But information on the disaster bears a tragic resemblance to previous explosions.

One of the major problems in underground coal mining is methane gas, continuously expelled from coal seams, and potentially explosive when mixed with air. In New Zealand a total of 211 men have been killed in nine separate methane explosions since coal mining started in the late 19th century. All the explosions can be attributed to faulty ventilation combined with poor safety practices.

The nine explosions are widely spaced over 130 years, including Kaitangata (1879, 34 deaths), Brunner (1896, 65 deaths), Huntly (1914, 43 deaths), Strongman (1967, 19 deaths) and Pike River (2010, 29 deaths). Successive Commissions of Enquiry have recommended improved safety measures, but it appears that the dangers of methane explosions are gradually forgotten as each generation of experienced mine workers retires. Continuing vigilance is needed to ensure that younger miners and mine managers are aware of the hidden dangers of underground mining.

The report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy makes depressing reading. There is not a single, simple cause, but rather a cumulative succession of errors and misjudgements. It was certainly intended to run the mine with state-of-the-art methane monitoring, but shortcuts were taken because of construction delays and mounting debts, and the gas monitoring equipment was never properly installed and calibrated. There had been many warnings of high methane levels and small explosions, but these were ignored. The Inspector of Mines was on the verge of closing the mine, but was assured by the management that everything was under control.

The best way we can remember the 29 men killed at Pike River – and the others killed in the preceding eight mine explosions – is to ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten. Underground coal mines should not operate unless they are regularly inspected and conform to the highest safety standards.

An incident form submitted by mine shift supervisor Dene Murphy in June 2010. The Pike River mine's incident register records many attempts by Murphy to draw attention to failings in ventilation and gas management, but these were never followed up. Source: Royal Commission report on the Pike River disaster

An incident form submitted by mine shift supervisor Dene Murphy in June 2010. The Pike River mine's incident register records many attempts by Murphy to draw attention to failings in ventilation and gas management, but these were never followed up. Source: Royal Commission report on the Pike River disaster

Looking ahead

Last week we said farewell to a number of staff who have worked on Te Ara since its final theme, Creative and Intellectual Life, was published at the end of last year. In that time they have put in place systems and processes for maintaining Te Ara into the future and we want to acknowledge here all their efforts.

Nancy Swarbrick led the team as Senior Editor, and worked with Kerryn Pollock to write and revise the many words that make up the encyclopedia; Mel Lovell-Smith and Emily Tutaki researched the wonderful images and multi-media items that illustrate those words, and Caren Wilton edited and ran the production system behind the website. All have made a huge contribution, not just in the last year but over many years as part of the team that built Te Ara into what it is today.

While we say farewell to these staff we remain deeply committed to maintaining and developing Te Ara, and cementing its place as a valued taonga for all New Zealanders. Messages of support for the site and its ever-growing number of visitors attest to the esteem with which it’s viewed. Te Ara is a significant national project that has drawn on hundreds of people who wrote and edited entries, supplied images and multi-media content, and added their stories. In the coming months and years we want to ensure these communities are involved in Te Ara’s ongoing maintenance.

With a sizeable team still in our publishing group, including staff with experience working on Te Ara, regular updates to the site will continue to keep it relevant and current. We’ll also be able to work on it alongside other areas of work like Te Taiwhakaea Treaty Settlement Stories and our commemorations work: the WW100 programme, the 125th anniversary of universal suffrage in 2018, and the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing in 2019. All of this work touches the lives of many New Zealanders and it’s great to be able to place Te Ara at the centre of it.

It is a challenge, but it’s also a chance for us to step back and take stock of how we work across all our websites. It’s an exciting challenge to have and one that we hope Te Ara readers will enjoy and support.

Matthew Oliver and Neill Atkinson