You can tell a lot about a country from the state of its roads.

Roads are a critical part of the infrastructure. Despite what you may think about transport alternatives, our roads are the routes we use every day. Whether we’re on buses, in cars, motorbikes, or even pushbikes, the roading system is critical to our ability to get around.

I’m about halfway through our Bike for Blokes charity cycle ride from Cape Reinga to Bluff. We’re raising money for farmers’ mental health and prostate cancer research. We have about 10 days and 1300 kilometres to go. We’re in Greytown in the Wairarapa, about to make a quick dash over the Remutaka Hill, into Wellington and, hopefully, onto the Interislander bound for Picton.

When you cover 120km a day on a bicycle, you get a close-up view of the state of the roads. And what we’re seeing isn’t good.

I remember travelling to California 15 or so years ago. The roads were a mess. Cracks and potholes, unrepaired slips and damaged shoulders crying out for attention and repair. Only after my trip did I learn that the state of California was nearing bankruptcy.

You can tell a lot about a country from the state of its roads.

Over half of the country’s population lives in the area north of Taupo. In other words, Northland, Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. And the roads north of Taupo are in a bad way.

When you’re travelling by car you might notice the odd pothole. And of course, you’ll be slowed by the occasional roadworks.

But a bike is different. You feel every bump. A pothole can take you out. You see the degradation of the roads close up. The poor quality of recent repairs is more obvious as a result of your close-up view. When you get over onto the left-hand shoulder, you often notice that they stopped building the “road” at the white line and pushed the sludge onto the shoulder. It gets very bumpy on the edge.

Most of our truckers are courteous and patient. They give us plenty of room. But every now and then there’s a logging truck or a big articulated number that comes by too close, forcing us into the “sludge”.

South of Taupo, there are fewer people. There’s less traffic. And the roads are in better shape. The shoulders are wider. The shoulder is smoother, better finished, which makes us wonder about the possibility of a better work ethic in the regions.

As we’ve travelled through the King Country, Whanganui and Manawatū, the roads are better than in the north. But they’re still broken.

There are plenty of people, politicians among them, who will say the damage to the roads is a result of the recent weather. But the reality is that the decline has taken a long time.

We did this trip last year. Many of the temporary fixes that were there last year are still there this year. The barricades, the cones and the stop-go lights, or the stop-go person, still operating in the same place a year later, without much to show in the way of improvement.

In the far north, the extent of the damage caused by the recent storms is obvious, and in many cases heart-breaking. But there are also roads that have been closed or left barely passable for months. Such an occurrence was once unusual. Now it’s becoming more and more normalised. Highway One between Mangamuka and Kaitaia has been closed for months. The south side of the Brynderwyns had plenty of problems before its recent closure. I can’t even remember when the Manawatū Gorge was last open to a vehicle more substantial than a mountain bike.

There is plenty of chat about alternative forms of transport. But the reality is that we are going to continue to use cars, buses, trucks and bikes as our core transport methods for the next 50 years. So we need good roads.

I have no doubt that the politicians will grasp for the excuse box, blaming the state of our roads on the recent cyclone or the next rainfall. But the state of our roads is a problem that has been in the making for years, and probably decades.

Unfortunately, just like the floods, it’s coming home to roost at a time when we can ill-afford it.

The condition of our roading network provides an ample metaphor for the state of the country. Once proud and delivering to the highest standards, and now, somehow, in tatters.

I heard a so-called roading expert interviewed on the radio. He said we had more roads of a higher standard than we needed. More roads that were unnecessarily sealed than could be justified.

So, I guess you could argue that we built a roading network that was over-specified for what we needed. Another viewpoint could suggest that we had an aspiration as a country to do things properly. To be better than we needed to be. And we did. We had skilled people and high hopes. Our parents had a saying, “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly”. Instead, today we have brand-new highways, such as the magnificent Waikato motorway extension, that need repairs less than 12 months after opening.

So despite more consultants than ever before, longer timelines for consents and approvals, and a supposedly competitive environment, the reality is that we’re getting an inferior product. My guess is that contractors seeking to win the job take shortcuts to meet price points, and even then, whatever is specified isn’t delivered. On top of that, you have a lack of pride in the workmanship. You only have to look at some of the repairs to know that the people who made them don’t care about the quality of the job they’ve left behind.

In the far north, we saw orange cones placed around trees and debris that had fallen onto the road. In many cases, the trees and the soil could have been removed with less effort than it took to place the cones. But I guess that moving debris is not in the job spec of the cone placer.

In fact, we seem to have plenty of people placing cones. Unfortunately, we don’t have many people fixing the mess behind those cones.

This once-proud country seems to be at a crossroads of sorts.

With a Government majoring in minor things, we are starting to notice that the major things aren’t working anymore.

Just like the repair jobs on the roads, at the centre of our problems is a failure to maintain proper standards. When standards slip, expectations gradually diminish in parallel. We expect less of our schools, our health services and our public officials than we did previously. As expectations fall, so does service delivery. As a result, the services delivered by those organisations enter a period of continuous decline. It’s called a downward spiral.

So kids stop going to school and that is apparently okay. Those who do turn up are more likely to fail at the basics than those before them. Someone needs to say out loud that such results are not acceptable. This week I read that the new standard in our hospital emergency departments is based on whether a doctor sees you within six hours. How can that be deemed acceptable? Our mental health stats are worsening by the day and despite a $1.9 billion government investment, we have no improvement. Our criminals seem to have a such nerve that an underpowered police force can only stand by and watch as shops get raided and drugs delivered.

These failures will see more people than ever relying on government to support their existence. Increased reliance on government services and government funds is a logical outcome of poor education, declining health services and increasing crime. And of course, as standards slip, so too does the performance of those government services that more and more people end up relying on. It’s a downward spiral to nowhere.

Those of us who care to observe what is going on can foresee a collapse of monumental proportions. A decline in standards across basic functions that can, if not arrested, result in the failure of the State.

Meanwhile, the cost of running this little country has ballooned by one billion dollars a week. To make matters worse, we’re borrowing every cent. But what are we getting for it?

You can tell a lot about a country from the state of its roads.

This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday 4th of March 2023.

– Bruce Cotterill and Paul Muir are cycling the length of New Zealand again in 2023 to raise awareness and funds for charities that support men’s health. You can follow them, and donate at