Black taxis = Black Friday chaos

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.

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  • Catcher in the Rye

    This protest was a shameful and selfish incident, as well as being an illegal action, that created untold misery for commuters going home across the city. If the police are not proceeding with prosecutions this time, I hope they do next time.

    As you note in your article Andy, public hire drivers seem to have this attitude that their license entitles them to an expectation that the state will provide space for them to park where they like waiting for work. It is clear that supply is outstripping demand, but these drivers will not use the rights they have to look for people who wish to flag down taxis outside of the immediate environs of City Hall and instead insist that customers come to them. This misses the whole point of a taxi, which is convenience.

    If the taxi drivers do not wish to use their rights then it seems clear that the Government must press ahead to allow private hire cabs to pick up unscheduled fares from the street.

  • chrisjones2

    Roll on Uber …..but no doubt our socialist politicians in hoc to the various vested taxi interests including the paramilitary ones will do everything possible to stop them operating here

    Still, if it makes MLAs feel relevant perhaps that does some good and perhaps may unite them in their efforts to protect the taxi drivers from a dose of healthy competition

  • Brian O’Neill

    Good post Andy. I think another issue is a lot of people just do not trust those black taxis. I often hear stories of people being ripped off, especially late at night. Personally I prefer to ring fonacab or valuecab because I know I can trust them. I imagine I am not alone in this.

    The law should be changed to let private hire companies pick up off the street. Let the market decide.

  • chrisjones2

    …and let Uber in and its absolutely transparent

  • whatif1984true

    I agree Taxi drivers think that they are special road users and have privileges. It is about time someone reminded them they don’t.
    However ‘minor’ road traffic offences are no longer pursued. How often do you see one light wonders or cyclists with no lights or cars parked 100%on the pavement forcing wheelchairs and prams on to the road.
    Over time it will only get worse until there is an accident and someone notices.
    Remember the security barrier on the Malone Road which was taken down and then there was a fatality of a Fresher at QUB. It has now been replaced yet I have never heard anyone explain why it was removed. Our media never follow up, a quick article and on to the next quick article. It is little wonder the BTele and Newsletter will eventually fail and disappear.

  • AndyB

    I could not possibly comment on whether I carefully played the ball instead of the man with the analysis in this article!

  • AndyB

    Chris Lyttle put a Written Question down in the Assembly:

    The answer was this, and pretty much confirms what I said in the article:

    In May 2015, my officials completed a detailed survey of the taxi rank
    usage in Belfast. This involved visiting each site on a range of days
    of the week and times of the day to ensure a representative survey.
    The survey of the taxi ranks found that:
    17% are heavily used;
    21% are well used;
    33% are regularly used; and
    29% are underutilised.
    Officials concluded that there were sufficient taxi rank spaces to provide a taxi for members of the public wishing to use one.
    My Department is awaiting detailed comments from the Taxi Associations in relation to the findings of the survey.
    In addition, a survey of the accessibility of the four busiest taxi ranks
    was carried out in conjunction with the Inclusive Mobility and Transport
    Advisory Committee (IMTAC). This concluded there were no major
    accessibility issues at these ranks and sufficient facilities were
    available to meet the needs of the customers.