Taxis in Northern Ireland are to be allowed to use bus lanes, which could help ease congestion at bottlenecks.
Roads Minister Danny Kennedy is expected to make an official decision in the near future, but it’s understood taxi firms have been told they will be able to use the bus lanes from April 1.
The scheme will include the new lanes which clogged up Belfast in the run-up to Christmas.
But a departmental document warned the decision is “highly likely” to impact on the performance of bus lanes “in terms of bus speeds and journey times”.
Translink, however, which has enjoyed improved journey times on routes via Belfast city centre in recent months, said it could not make any comment at present.
A spokeswoman said: “Although we are aware of plans to allow all taxis to have access to bus lanes, we cannot make any comment until this has been announced officially.”
Regional Development Minister Mr Kennedy came in for harsh criticism when new bus lanes introduced in central Belfast last September resulted in gridlock.
But the city’s Chamber of Commerce now believes the length and extent of traffic jams has eased with fewer motorists using the city centre as their through route to other destinations. Should the changes be agreed, the new system will allow all taxis to be hailed on the street at any point
Alliance MLA Anna Lo, who tabled an Assembly question on the issue, said: “If it is the case that people will be able to hail all taxis, whether the black taxis in Belfast or private hire on the street, that is probably a good thing and more convenient.
“And it might help traffic generally if taxis are using that stretch of road that are meant now only for the buses.
“I actually tabled the question, though, because of concern over the impact on cyclists who are allowed to use the bus lanes.”
Mr Kennedy made clear his decision is also dependent on a shake-up in the current taxi licensing system to a single licence.
He said Environment Minister Alex Attwood has already signalled his plan to end the present four types of taxi licence. “My department’s officials are currently finalising the consultation report relating to all taxis being allowed access to bus lanes.
“I hope to be in a position to make a decision on this issue before the end of this month,” Mr Kennedy said.
“However, should I decide that all taxis are permitted access to bus lanes, this would be conditional on the Department of the Environment changing the taxi licensing regime to move to a single licence type.”
A DRD spokesperson said the review of regulations on the use of bus lanes had been in response to the DoE making it clear that it intends to bring to an end the distinction between the four types of taxi licence.
“The department embarked on a public consultation as a result of the expected announcement by DoE detailing the reforms.
“The minister will make a formal announcement regarding the decision on the use of bus lanes by taxis shortly.”
Currently, only Belfast Hire Taxis and Taxi Bus services are permitted access to bus lanes.
“Both are allowed access as they operate in a fashion similar to public transport, being able to pick up and drop off on the street, and because Belfast Public Hire Taxis are legally required to be wheel chair accessible,” the consultation document added.
“The new licensing arrangements will see a marked change in how all taxis will in future operate.
“Once made, the changes will allow all taxis to be hailed on street.”
1992 — the first bus lane opens in Belfast
1993 — cyclists allowed to use bus lanes
1999 — direct rule minister Lord Dubs comes under pressure to open bus lanes to other forms of transport
2005 — motorcycles are permitted access