Last Wednesday, Frank Mitchell welcomed David McNarry and two Belfast public hire taxi drivers onto his U105 show, where the story unfolded of how NSL’s traffic attendants are now carrying out enforcement activities around the taxi rank in Donegall Square North.
The complaint was that taxi drivers have insufficient space on the taxi rank, and they are being ticketed unfairly for parking outside its bounds. My comments when I called into the show form the basis of this post, but the taxi drivers escalated this yesterday by parading slowly round Belfast city centre to create chaos, and they have threatened to continue this protest from 4-5pm every day.
The key question arising is what is the purpose of a taxi rank, and what should public hire taxi drivers reasonably expect?
To my mind, the purpose of a taxi rank is no more and no less than for customers to conveniently hire a taxi, a place where they should not have to wait for any length of time except in particularly busy periods (for example, late nights on the Golden Mile or in the University area.) In other words, it should be demand led.
Reminiscing the other day about old dates with my wife, I noticed from Swarm that not for the first time, or indeed the last time, I noted 20 black taxis in the taxi rank at lunchtime on 13 March 2012. Turnover was extremely slow – a taxi would move off with passengers every few minutes, but in general taxis were lying idle due to lack of demand. There was no evidence of demand for 20 taxis simultaneously – six or seven taxis on the stand at a time would be more than adequate to meet the number of customers waiting for a taxi and ensure that anyone coming along doesn’t have to wait.
Therefore, point #1 is: Taxi ranks only need to be big enough to ensure that enough vehicles are available to meet customer demand.
Supposing demand increased, would a larger rank be required? The answer is turnover. With the number of available public hire taxis in Belfast, there should be enough vehicles available to come on to the rank behind as taxis leave.
Point #2: Good turnover in taxi ranks should easily meet higher demand without extending taxi ranks.
Or in other words, there is no need to extend the taxi rank at Donegall Square North, because it is fundamentally a passenger facility rather than a facility for taxi drivers.
So where do the displaced taxi drivers go?
Firstly, overflowing from the taxi rank is not acceptable. Double yellow lines apply to that entire side of the road from the centre of the road to the back of the footway – irrespective of bus lane restrictions. It is actually unlawful for a taxi to back into the emergency exit from Marks and Spencer at the east end of the rank.
Secondly, other taxi ranks are available – places that during their hours of operation are reserved for public hire taxis and which nobody else can use. That includes one a few metres away in Donegall Square South, which is usually disused.
Thirdly, they can park in any normal parking place, subject to time restrictions and parking charges, and use local facilities.
Point #3: Public hire taxi drivers are not restricted to taxi ranks.
Fourthly, they can look for fares.
Outside west Belfast, it is nearly impossible to get a public hire taxi. Potential customers in the rest of the city would wait a long time were they to go out to a main road in search of a public hire taxi to flag down – just the odd one returning from leaving a customer off on their journey from the city centre.
Anybody who doesn’t want to get to the city centre by their own transport (car, bike or on foot) is therefore almost obliged to take the bus or private hire taxi. If you get the bus into town (for rather less than a public hire taxi), you’re likely to get the bus home, and many private hire taxi firms will arrange to pick you up later on to keep your custom, besides picking you up from your house front door. On the other hand, the public hire taxi drivers largely expect you to come to them, artificially limiting their availability to the potential customer.
So point #4: 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.
There is however an obligation of fairness. All road users should expect to be tackled equally for illegal parking: private hire taxis who stop on double yellows for longer than required to pick up and set down customers; delivery vehicles using cycle lanes; private cars chancing their arms; even blue badge holders who act outside the concessions that come with the badges (for example, blocking in other parked vehicles); and cars insisting on double parking when they can’t park normally (ever seen the Lisburn Road between the former Ulsterville Presbyterian and Belgravia Avenue?) – all of which disadvantage the lawful driver trying to park or get about their business. Failure to enforce brings these restrictions into disrepute, as drivers are given the impression that they can ignore them with impunity.
Point #5 is therefore: NSL needs to be seen to enforce all traffic restrictions in the City centre, and in NI at large (which may need more resources).
Point #6 is related: If a parking restriction is unenforceable due to deficiencies in the signage, road markings or the legislation, DRD needs to fix this so that they become enforceable.
So what of the protests? They are counterproductive. Deliberately disrupting the journeys home of members of the public is not going to encourage them to use public hire taxis. It will also encourage shoppers to take their custom to places where protestors cannot prevent them from going about their business.
Therefore Point #7 is: Disrupting traffic over the lack of taxi ranks is going to damage both the cause of the taxi drivers and Belfast itself.
Fundamentally, though one point arises. DOE’s practice has been that PSV licences are granted to any person who meets the criteria and passes the taxi driver’s test (theoretical and practical) regardless of demand. No consideration is given to the number of licences already issued, which makes the taxi market in Northern Ireland pretty much wide open.
It may be nearly impossible to get a taxi, private hire or public hire, late at night, but this is not a problem during the day. It seems to me that new entrants to the public hire taxi market are taking away from the ability of existing operators to make a living, while failing to make an adequate income themselves (a point that could be extended to the private hire market, but at least we can choose our private hire taxi firms!)
Point #8 is as simple as this: There is evidence that there are simply too many public hire taxis seeking too little business during the working day in Belfast.