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Uber will 're-evaluate' business in Belfast if 'outdated' taxi law changes are introduced

Belfast's newest taxi operator doesn't rule out leaving Northern Ireland over 'backward' reforms

By Jonny Bell

Published 18/01/2016

Uber is a taxi-booking app for mobile phones.
Uber is a taxi-booking app for mobile phones.
Uber driver Adrian
The Uber belfast team: Pete Franks - Head of Driver Operations, Leoni Abraham - Partner, driver support, Cain Kennedy - Marketing Manager and Kieran Harte General Manager.

Global taxi operator Uber has said it would have to "re-evaluate its business" in Belfast if new laws on taxi regulation were introduced.

The Assembly is considering introducing six new rules for owning and operating taxis in Northern Ireland.

Among the changes will be the introduction of taxi metres and printers in all vehicles which would be inspected, tested and sealed by Department of the Environment officials.

If passed, the measures will come into force in May.

Kieran Harte, general manager for Uber Belfast, said: "Since launching in Belfast just over a month ago we have been overwhelmed by the reaction of both riders and professional drivers wanting to sign up.

"Uber has brought a seamless transport option to Belfast enabling people to get where they need to go more efficiently than ever before.

"The new rules, if introduced, would be a huge step backwards and would force us to re-evaluate our business in the city.

"Forcing drivers to install unnecessary technology - like taxi meters and receipt printers - stop the sector creating new jobs and increase prices for consumers.”

When asked if the changes would mean Uber, which has only operated in Belfast for a month, would pull out of the local market, a spokesman added: "We would like to stay, but we would have to make sure we could have a viable business with the new rules."

Read more: Uber Belfast: New law proposals won't ease burden on Saturday night wait for a taxi

The new changes will also allow private hire vehicles to ply for trade off the street, at certain times. Something which they are currently prohibited from doing.

Uber has taken the world by storm with its ground-breaking app which allows people to hire, pay and give feedback on their taxi journey.

The mobile phone app, available on both Android and iPhones, works on a cashless system - with users signing up with a bank card - charged for each journey automatically on arrival at their destination.

They also receive a picture of their driver, their car and details before its arrival.

Uber launched in 2009 and has rapidly expanded across the world and is now available in over 300 cities across 67 countries.

Since then it has gone from small beginnings to become a multi-billion dollar business.

Drivers, who are fully licenced, are not directly employed by Uber but are instead partners deciding when they want to work with the operator taking 25% of all their fare.

It launched in Belfast in December and, having to comply with Northern Ireland laws, cars had to display roof signs - a first for the company.

Kieran said the cost of the new equipment would lead to increased fares for customers.

He added: "Whilst the idea to allow every taxi and minicab to pick up off the streets during weekend hours is well intentioned, it won’t get people home any sooner. 

"The real problem is that there are too few cars for all the people that want them.  And getting more cars on the road will be hampered by new rules that require drivers to pay for out-dated technology like meters and receipt printers.

"These costs keep the drivers Belfast desperately needs to meet demand at weekends off the city’s streets.

"Receipt printers might have seemed the technology of the future in 2008, but they certainly don’t in 2016."

Uber has refused to disclose how many drivers it has operating in the city, but said in its first month it has grown.

And as the business grows, its reach here is expected to have a big impact on Northern Ireland's traditional taxi businesses.

That includes the two biggest names in the city - FonaCab and Value Cabs.

William McCausland, who operates FonaCab in Belfast, has described the app company's decision to enter the local market as highly concerning.

"This is a big threat to my business, it's not the wonderful thing people seem to think it is," he said. "You'd be very naive not to take it seriously."

Value Cabs operates around 600 taxis in Belfast, while FonaCab has some 500 vehicles in the city.

Uber's boss in the UK, Jo Bertram, has previously said the company brings "competition to an industry which hasn't been shaken up in years".

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