Whither public hire taxis and the wider taxi industry in NI?

Wednesday came as a bit of a shock, as for the first time since, well, the early 1990s at least, I was glad not to have an Executive, as the Department for Infrastructure announced that it could no longer proceed with a proposed Experimental Traffic Control Scheme to permit Class A taxis in bus lanes in the absence of a Minister.

This excellent news for cyclists and other legitimate bus lane users who will not now be swamped by Class A taxis means that the fight will continue to persuade future ministers that they should not proceed with such a scheme, but at least until Sinn Fein and the DUP take responsibility for seeking the sort of compromise almost reached earlier this year that doesn’t involve total capitulation by either side, this is good news for all but Class A taxi drivers.

However, I thought it was also a good opportunity to revisit an old post of mine about taxis in Belfast.

I wrote that piece at the time of what I called Black Friday Chaos, which reminds me of some private taxi drivers thinking aloud this week on Twitter that they should similarly block traffic in response to being banned from the bus lanes.  The truth of course is that no taxi driver is banned from driving in bus lanes – if they purchase a wheelchair-accessible taxi and license it as Class B, they will be automatically entitled to operate in the bus lanes.

As I reflected almost three years ago, the fundamental problem with the public hire taxis is that if you are not in the city centre, you can’t get one because they sit on taxi ranks in the city centre (did someone tell me recently on this site that private sector businesses run services where and when the customers want them?) – see this key quote from that article:

Public hire taxis should make themselves more visible and available to local potential customers by being present in the suburbs rather than relying on one-way journeys.

Linked to this is an observation I made in passing.  If you get the bus into the city centre during the working day, you’re likely to take the bus home again.  If you take a private hire taxi into the city centre during the working day, they’re likely to come back for you to be sure of another fare.  Linked to that, if you use and trust a particular taxi firm, you’re likely to call them if you need to get a taxi unexpectedly rather than looking for a black taxi.

It’s worth emphasising that black taxis may stand anywhere lawful to wait for fares.  They are after all cars (or vans) which can lawfully use parking spaces up to any time limit displayed in the same way as a private person’s car.  Hypothetically, for example, I believe black taxis could take kerbside space on any arterial route outside clearway and bus lane times to wait for fares, and apparently quite legally, just as private hire taxis do outside their depots (except for illegal parking on yellow lines!)

They also tend to charge the maximum permissible fare, which is substantially dearer than the private taxis charge (someone please tell me why the law states that private taxis must display the maximum permissible fare instead of the actual tariff used), which makes them less competitive.  I suspect the reason for this is that most Class B taxi drivers are independent and have to meet the higher costs of being an operator rather than simply a driver, but it does make them uncompetitive compared to private hire taxis.

What has changed in the last three years is the continued expansion of the two McCausland firms – I recently received a £10 note stamped by the paying-in office they share with another firm (should have taken a photograph!) which I think may now be a subsidiary of one of the big two.  It’s difficult for those of us who like to give our custom to smaller firms with higher minimum fares but lower mileage rates and quicker responses to bookings as the smaller firms are closing, and the cost savings disappearing with them.

What is outside the scope of this piece is the impact of the revised taxi licensing on the taxi market in Northern Ireland, and how it has impacted on the viability of smaller firms, because I simply don’t have the expertise to comment on whether the acceleration of the expansion and takeovers of smaller firms would have happened anyway.

What does however strike me as I close is that one impact of allowing Class A taxis the benefit of speeding up through using bus lanes is that it would worsen the competitiveness of Class B taxis further – and while the oversupply of Class B taxis continues in Belfast city centre during the day, just as it did in 2015, this is not going to help the undersupply of all taxis – especially accessible taxis – at night.

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