DRD reviews Belfast bus lane rules in response to taxi reform
Northern Ireland's biggest taxi firm has called for all taxis to be allowed to use the bus lanes, given a current review of the regulations around their use.
The Department of Environment has introduced new reforms on how taxis are licensed which comes into force on May 31.
As part of the reform taxis will all have meters and receipt printers - which many drivers and firms have criticised with some saying it will drive up costs for customers and put some out of business.
However, in a bid to combat the lack of available taxis over the weekends, previously private hire cabs will be allowed to pick up passengers who hail them from the street during those peak times.
The new public hire element of the legislation change means the Department of Regional Development is having to review the laws on which vehicles can use Belfast's contentious bus lanes.
Currently black taxis can use the bus lanes as they are public hire vehicles.
Fona Cab owner William McCausland - who also speaks on behalf of Value Cabs on the matter - said if any taxi is allowed to use the bus lanes it should be "all or none at all".
And if a review is underway then that change needs to be made, he said.
Mr McCausland told the Belfast Telegraph: "Our position is, and it has been for a long time, you can't have one public hire vehicle allowed to use the bus lanes and not another.
"It could mean the difference between a one minute journey compared to a seven or eight minute journey to get to a customer for us.
"We use GPS and the customers can see the car that may be closer to them, but with Belfast the way it is, it may not be the one that we can get to them the quickest.
"If we could use the bus lanes it would mean improved journey times and be cheaper for the customers and allow drivers to get around the town much quicker."
Recently Fona Cab bought over East Belfast Taxis to take its fleet to over 670, making it Northern Ireland's biggest firm.
William, whose family have been in the taxi business since the 1930s, added: "We are in the ludicrous situation that if a customer stands outside a hotel that runs by a bus lane and flags us down, the drivers can't stop in the bus lane to pick them up.
"If they are to look again at who can use the bus lanes, our view is that taxis are public hire vehicles and as such should be allowed to use the lanes."
Mr McCausland said it would have been "common sense" to bring in both the taxi reforms and the bus lane changes at the same time.
One taxi driver - who asked not to be named - said the bus lanes meant he and other drivers were in the "ludicrous" situation of having to sail past tourists outside hotels and being unable to stop for them.
He said: "What a welcome it is for people visiting Belfast, you can't pick up someone outside a hotel because of the bus lane.
"They restrict my ability to work.
"And the whole point is that the new reforms will make it easier to get a taxi on a Saturday night.
"It won't - the problem is that every pub and club in the city chucks everyone out at the same time. It's a change to drinking laws that we needed."
A spokeswoman for the DRD said a study was ordered last month into how the taxi reforms will affect access to the bus lanes for taxis.
That study is intended to help quantify the effect on bus journey times should all taxis be allowed into bus lanes. No decision on whether future access arrangements will change has been taken, the study will purely help inform future decision making.
She said that given the sign-off of the taxi reforms by the Assembly in February there was little time to have in place a decision ahead of the dissolution of the Assembly at the end of March.
However, it's hoped that a decision on what changes, if any, will be made prior to the introduction of the reforms on May 31.
DRD officials are determining the extent of work needed which will dictate the timescale.
The DRD spokeswoman added: "Currently two types of taxi are permitted to use bus lanes during their hours of operation where this is indicated on the adjacent bus lane signs.
"These are Belfast Public Hire Taxis, which operate under a yellow plate, and Taxi-Bus services which operate under a white-and-blue plate.
"Both are permitted access as they operate in a similar fashion to public transport being able to be hailed and pick up passengers on street.
“The DOE legislation - The Taxi Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015, will come into operation on 31 May 2016 and this will see the taxi licensing definitions change with taxis being classified as class A, B, C or D. This will require DRD to amend its bus lane orders and as part of this process, the department will consider which classes of taxi will in future be permitted to use bus lanes.
“The minister has therefore asked that a study be carried out to determine the impact from taxis using bus lanes would have on bus journey times. The department is presently organising a study to gauge the potential impact of the new taxi classes on the operation of bus lanes.
“For a period of time after the changeover at 31 May 2016, the two types of taxi currently permitted to use bus lanes will continue to meet the definitions contained in DRD bus lane orders, until such times as they are relicensed.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's newest taxi operator, the global giant Uber, said its vehicles will be classed under the new Class C licence which means cars can only be pre-booked.
The company, which only launched in Belfast in December, said it would have to review its Northern Ireland operations in response to the reforms.
Its Class C Licence means Uber drivers will not will not need roof signs or meters and printers and passengers can continue to use its app to book taxis and receive an emailed receipt.
Kieran Harte, general manager for Uber Belfast, said: "Uber has been incredibly popular since we launched in Belfast just a few months ago. Thousands of people across the city have used our app to get an affordable ride at the push of a button.
“Following discussions with the Department of Environment we’re delighted that we can continue using our technology to innovate and help get people from A to B. Booking a trip through our app is not only convenient but safe too as every journey is recorded and passengers get the name, photo and registration number of their licensed driver in advance too.
“We believe this new licence type will encourage new drivers to enter the industry which will help create new economic opportunities and grow our service across Northern Ireland.”