Cyclists fear swamping by taxis if Belfast bus lane rules eased
It was thought Belfast's bus lanes were about to be flooded by 2,000 taxis – but now it looks like the figure could be as high as 4,500.
Cycling groups recently protested outside the City Hall over proposals to allow 1,500 extra private hire taxis into the bus lanes – or so they thought.
In fact, that is the number of green plate taxis registered as operating within Belfast's city limits. But it doesn't take into account the army of white-plate taxis registered outside Belfast but also operating in the city.
Sustainable transport charity Sustrans believes Belfast could be looking at 4,500 private taxis flooding the bus lanes if Transport Minister Danny Kennedy gives the go-ahead to all taxis being able to use bus lanes.
That's the 500 public hire taxis that currently use them, the 1,500 green-plate taxis, and an estimated 2,500 white-plate private hire taxis.
The Belfast Telegraph decided to check the situation for itself.
We spent an hour on the steps of St Anne's Cathedral in Donegall Street counting how many of the different types of taxi passed by.
The results would appear to back up what cycling groups are saying.
In that hour, we counted 51 white-plate taxis registered as being from outside Belfast, 26 green-plate taxis and two yellow-plate public hire taxis.
In the week that Belfast was named as the UK's most congested city, this is raising serious concerns over DRD's efforts to make the city centre a place where buses and bikes take priority.
Ukip MLA David McNarry said he will now be writing to the minister, asking him to take another look at the information used in compiling the consultation.
"It shows the usage of the white-plate taxis is far, far greater than I or the department would have been made aware of. I think this needs to be looked at again in light of what you have just told me," he said.
Fellow Stormont regional development committee member, Alliance's Stewart Dickson, who is opposed to allowing all taxis into bus lanes, said: "I do not understand why the DRD says it supports sustainable transport, and is working on schemes such as Belfast On The Move, whilst planning to allow extra taxis to flood bus lanes."
Sustrans director Steven Patterson said he had already made the minister aware of what he believed to be the true number of taxis poised to flood bus lanes, regarded by cyclists as a safe space away from faster-moving cars.
"At the minute cyclists in east, south and central Belfast on the morning commute come across very few taxis.
"But if you are having to share the lane with these minicabs it will make the journey feel more dangerous."
Cycling group CTC volunteer Tom McClelland said he was concerned about the lack of research on how many taxis could be using lanes. A spokesman for DRD said: "Taxi licensing arrangements are due to change and this will see the end of the current two-tier system of public and private hire taxis with the introduction of a new single tier arrangement. Within this single tier system taxis will either be wheelchair-accessible or not.
"The Department for Regional Development is reviewing its regulations on the use of bus lanes by taxis.
"Currently the department only permits Belfast public hire and taxi buses to use bus lanes. This consultation ended on September 21, 2012 and a number of issues were raised which required careful consideration.
"The minister is in possession of a draft consultation response and will announce his decision in due course.
"We are fully aware of the concerns raised by individuals and groups."
Cycling groups have hit out at plans by Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy to allow all taxis to use bus lanes in Belfast. They say the move will make bus lanes, currently seen as a safe haven for cyclists, into dangerous places as taxis seek to overtake them. Sustainable transport groups also claim the move will slow down buses and make a mockery of plans to make the city less congested. Belfast was named as the UK's most congested city last week.