Wellington City Councillor Chris Calvi-Freeman wants residents to stop the tradition of tooting in the Mt Victoria tunnel, saying it annoys pedestrians. However, guests of The Panel say it’s a time-honoured practise and discouraging the beeping might only make it worse.
Calvi-Freeman earlier told Morning Report the tunnel is not a pleasant environment for walkers “at the best of times” and anything the council could do to improve it would be good.
He said that because the tunnel was part of State Highway 1 it was the responsibility of NZTA not the council, but he was still trying to get something done.
"All I'm doing is writing to NZTA and saying 'why don't you try some notices and see if something might work'.
"Maybe a sign that says, I don't know, 'please respect pedestrians and refrain from honking', I don't know. Someone - a sociologist or a linguist - will perhaps come up with some words that are pithy but are soft and encouraging rather than dictatorial."
Panel guest Victoria Stewart agrees the tunnel isn’t a hoot to walk through.
“It’s a miserable tunnel, it’s terrible when there’s tooting, but it’s so much fun. It’s an annoyance but it’s not a health risk in my view and we should still keep on doing it.”
Stewart says that she doesn’t toot if she’s driving through by herself “because I feel like a dick” but she will if she has passengers.
Calvi-Freeman also complained about cyclists trying to share the narrow path with pedestrians, which Stewart says is a bigger problem than the tooting.
Host Wallace Chapman says his first experience of tooting in the tunnel came as a surprise when he was a taxi passenger. The driver tooted and told a stunned Chapman it was a “tradition.”
“I did think it was kind of cute, a local tradition,” Chapman says. “You wonder if Calvi-Freeman has anything better to occupy his mind in the council’s transport strategy portfolio. He’s taking up council time wondering about a harmless, fun, local tradition.”
Stewart agrees and says he should focus on fixing the bus problems in Wellington instead.
Fellow panellist Andrew Frame says he hadn’t driven through the Mt Victoria tunnel since the 1980s but ventured that putting signs at the ends of the tunnel discouraging tooting - as the councillor suggests - is “inviting trouble”.
“It’s like naming your kid Chastity or Romeo,” he says.
According to legend, the tooting pays tribute to a teenager who was buried alive in the foundations while the tunnel was being built in 1931.
Her boyfriend who was a tunnel worker was hanged for murder.
Another less grim theory is the ritual stemmed from the tunnellers, who had horns and whistles on their carts to avoid collisions in the dark.
However, Wellington Library historian Gabor Toth says the origins of the tradition are murky. He says the murder had gone out of living memory until the 1990s when people on the internet linked the crime with the tooting. Furthermore, the murderer had been working on Hataitai Park and buried the victim there, not the tunnel.
Toth says tooting in the tunnel has been going on for a very long time and complaints about it have come and gone throughout the decades, right back to the 1950s. He says decades ago people tooted in all Wellington tunnels, but the practise slowly died off – leaving only Mt Victoria tunnel remaining as the last bastion of the tradition.
“Mt Victoria tunnel is tooting heaven,” he says. “It’s the best tunnel to toot in. It’s long, it’s narrow, it’s got the right acoustics.”
Toth says a local academic at Victoria University had also found it’s a great bellwether of how people are feeling. It was discovered that the highest time of tooting intensity is Friday afternoons.
“Everyone’s finished work for the week, going through the tunnel, and you just let rip. It’s a celebration of the end of the week,” he says.