Hailing a taxi on the street should be cheaper and safer following a major industry shake-up in Northern Ireland, it has been claimed.
From September private hire taxis will no longer have to be pre-booked, as is currently the case. Instead, they will be able to pick up passengers from the streets – just like public hire taxis (or black cabs) already can.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood said the change – originally due to come into effect last month – was designed to provide the public with more choice.
He said the introduction of a single-tier licensing system would make it easier for consumers to tell if the vehicle is a legal taxi. It will also allow drivers from outside Belfast to come into the city centre and work, meaning more taxis available at peak times, such as weekends.
The move, which was delayed for five months to allow the taxi industry to prepare, is also likely to bring prices down, according to the Department of the Environment's head of road safety, Iain Greenaway.
"Anything that will help improve competition may make things cheaper," said Mr Greenaway. "Broader competition and clearer, more open competition should help on the price front.
"But one of the other strands in the taxi process programme is that we root out the illegal taxi operators, which is a big problem in places," he said.
Mr Greenaway said the implementation of the new taxi licensing system was aimed at making a much clearer distinction between legal and illegal operators.
"It was the first step towards putting a ring around the legal operations," he said.
"In September, all taxis, anywhere in Northern Ireland, will be able to pick up on demand."
At present, black cabs and taxi-buses are allowed to use the bus lanes in Belfast, while the private hire vehicles are not.
The Department for Regional Development has consulted on extending bus lanes to all taxis, but no decision has been made.
There will also be a temporary deregulation of taxi meters and fares for Belfast public hire taxis to bring them into line with the rest of the taxi industry. At present, only Belfast public hire taxis are required by law to have meters installed.
Not all private hire taxis in Northern Ireland have meters.
The Department of the Environment said it will introduce a maximum fare structure for all taxis operating in Northern Ireland in 2014. This will include the requirement that all taxis must have an approved taxi meter and receipt machine installed.
Within Belfast, only wheelchair accessible vehicles will be permitted to stand at taxi ranks.
From September 2013 there will be major changes to how taxis operate in Northern Ireland. All taxis will be able to stand and ply for hire and will no longer have to be pre-booked. This is the next phase of implementing the Taxi Act 2008, following the introduction of Taxi Operator Licensing in September 2012. Single tier licensing is designed to make it easier for consumers to tell if the vehicle is a legal taxi and to give the customer greater choice as to the type of taxi they wish to use.