Northern Ireland’s Transport Minister Danny Kennedy hopes a significant chunk of his legacy in office will be his “cycling revolution”. Yet taxi reform being brought forward by Environment Minister Mark H Durkan threatens to destroy cycling levels in Belfast, by giving vast numbers of taxis priority over bicycles in rush hour. Their gain will be our loss, but what if our government is betting everything on the wrong horse?

What isn’t widely known is the steep decline in taxi usage over the last 10 years, in parallel to exceptional cycling growth – which is set to propel the importance of the bicycle up alongside and above the taxi sector in key areas of Belfast transport.

Belfast taxis saw a sharp 24% decline in commuting patronage between 2001 and 2011 – even in West Belfast where the taxi sector is dominated by cheap, flexible and socially-cohesive taxi bus services. In every area of the city cycle commuting increased – most notably in South and East Belfast, where bus lanes are virtually empty of permitted taxis during rush hours.


If the taxi decline and cycling increase are indicative of a more general trend in Belfast, cycle commuting looks on course to overtake taxi commuting by the 2021 Census. Admittedly it’s a leap to project forward from just 4 data points, but the irony will be lost on no-one that the ‘cross-over’ year happens to be 2015 – when all taxis are due to be let into bus lanes..


Commuting to/from work might be a narrow look at overall transport usage, but it’s actually very pertinent to this issue, as Belfast bus lanes naturally target only rush hour periods when commuting (along with the school run) creates the greatest congestion.

Sharp and spiralling decline in taxi use?

So is there an underlying decline in the importance of the taxi sector in NI and, if so, why give taxis privileged access to bus lanes at the expense of thriving cycling levels, which relies heavily on bicycle users’ perception of safety?

Maybe the projection above isn’t such a leap if we look at journey trends from DRD’s own annual Travel Survey for Northern Ireland. Taxi journeys have slumped over the 13 years of the survey, from a high of 21 per person per year (pppy) between 2000 and 2005, down to just 12 in 2011-13.  Average distance travelled similarly has dipped from 78 miles pppy in 2001-03 to just 53 in 2011-13. Meanwhile cycling shows sustained growth in almost every count since 2007 – the pre-cursor to our Minister’s ‘cycling revolution’.


The last graph on Belfast average distance travelled is even more interesting. Taxi travel at 94 miles pppy in 2010-12 is the lowest figure since the survey began. The prominent peak just happened to coincide with Belfast’s opulent property boom of the mid 2000s, followed by a sharp decline tracking the bust years and continuing austerity; draw your own conclusions.

And in this period of falling demand for taxis in Northern Ireland, what has been happening to supply? It turns out, there has been a massive expansion in the number of taxis in Northern Ireland. Between 2003-04 and 2010 there was a 55% increase in the number of taxi vehicles licensed to be on our roads.


I wonder if DOE knows how many of those additional taxis licensed since 2003-04 were registered as Public Hire outside Belfast (white plates) but actually cruise around the city’s street operating out of private hire depots?

We want more people to travel in Belfast by bus, with impressive investment backing this aim up. Already in Belfast, more people are cycling more often and further than ever before – this is worth building upon. At the same sime, there are more taxis chasing fewer passengers than ever before. Why on earth should this declining sector become the dominant user of bus lanes?

So why redefine bus lanes?

In the Rapid Transit | Taxis in bus lanes article we saw how DRD defines the purpose of bus lanes, which can become quite complex given the different types of vehicles allowed. I think it can be boiled down to two simple reasons for granting access to groups of vehicles – to promote a particularly beneficial transport mode and for increasing the safety of vulnerable road users.

Promotion – when prioritising vehicles capable of carrying more passengers than a typical car (buses, taxi buses and many wheelchair accessible taxis) there are clear benefits to society in reduced congestion, more efficient mass transport, reduced land demand in the city centre for parking – among others. Wheelchair accesible taxis also give disabled customers greater flexibility in travel options, and bus lane access can even be seen as some small mitigation against the increased purchase costs by a taxi driver, encouraging beneficial investment.

Safety –  by some distance, bicycle and motorcycle users are at greatest risk of being involved in a collision leading to serious injury or death. Bus lanes afford two-wheeled users some calm road space within hectic rush hours. Indeed, the choice to cycle or not is in a large part dictated by the perception of safety, something unlikely to put many people off driving or riding as a passenger in a bus or taxi.


Bicycles sit neatly in the middle of this spectrum, almost the perfect bus lane users. This space is actively used to encourage more cycling in Belfast, and safety needs are catered for by relatively empty space in the busiest periods on our roads.

The question for both Mark H Durkan and Danny Kennedy is simple – where do you see 4,000+ (mostly saloon car) taxis fitting into this picture?

Is anyone calling for a ‘taxi revolution’?

Are we actively encouraging people to make more taxi journeys in Belfast? If so, the evidence shows a clear trend in the opposite direction. Is there an obvious need to increase safety for taxi drivers or passengers, above any other user? Hardly, and certainly no arguments on this point featured in the DRD consultation on taxis in bus lanes.

Even worse, letting 4,000+ taxis dominate bus lanes impacts on all other users’ benefits as shown above – increased competition reduces the attractiveness of bus transport and risks the £100m public investment in Bus Rapid Transit; any chance to use bus lane access as a tool to increase the supply of wheelchair accessible taxi vehicles is lost; historic taxi bus routes risk being drowned out of existence; and the obvious reduction in safety for vulnerable users will hit the ‘cycling revolution’ hard.

Mark H Durkan’s immediate predecessor as Environment Minister realised the damaging side-effects of taxi reform on bus lanes and (late in the day) began the process of working on a resolution to the benefit of bus passengers, taxi bus patrons, wheelchair users and cyclists:

At the moment, the only taxis that can use bus lanes are public hire (the black taxis) and I’ve written to the DRD Minister saying to him I think (whilst that’s his decision) I think that’s the way things should go; that only public hire (black taxis) should be allowed use the bus lanes in order to ensure .. that Belfast keeps on the move. If you’ve a bus lane that ends up with all sorts of taxis using it, then you defeat the purpose of Belfast on the Move, which is the .. DRD strategy to try to keep the city moving..

Alex Attwood (former) DOE Minister, May 2013 [from 4:13]

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In the year since taxi reform was paused, DOE have rolled back on this position – why? In face-to-face meetings I’ve had with DRD officials over the last 18 months the message has been clear – DOE’s taxi reform is giving DRD a ‘hospital pass’, forcing a change which the ‘Transport’ Department has no great desire to implement. The unintended consequences of levelling the playing field for all taxis is an end to the fine balance among current bus lanes users – a once-in-a-lifetime irreversible decision to benefit a taxi sector in apparent decline, at great cost to growing sustainable transport.

Of course taxis are, and will remain, an important component of the overall transport system in Belfast and Northern Ireland. But the overall contribution of the taxi has reduced, while the bus and bicycle have gone from strength to strength.

The challenge is now for Environment Minister Mark H Durkan to work with the Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy to find a better way forward – for the greater good.

It’s very clear that people who cycle in Belfast do not want 4,000+ taxis to hassle them in bus lanes. But the elephant in the room in this debate is sizeable – a £100m elephant in the shape of the forthcoming Bus Rapid Transit system. Now that we know just how wrong the public consultation on bus lanes was, isn’t it time to re-evaluate the effect on the largest group of bus lane users – bus passengers?


Image owned by RobertG and is licensed for reuse under the GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2. See this image’s original location on Wikipedia Commons.

Infrastructure work on the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for Belfast has already begun. The new routes are due to begin operation in 2017, with bold promises from the Department for Regional Development (DRD) on the change they will bring for the city:

“BRT will create a new and dynamic bus-based public transport system for Belfast. [It] will provide a modern, safe, efficient and high quality service which encourages people to travel by public transport instead of car.” [DRD]

Bus transit was chosen over light rail/tram due to cost and flexibility (among other factors) but one thing that stands out about the Belfast system is that it will be almost exclusively on-road, sharing space with general traffic. Many BRT systems around the world use dedicated (even guided) running tracks, giving the system a guaranteed time advantage over general traffic.

[vimeo 12472119 w=600 h=450]

Bus Rapid Transit: Bogotá from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

The speed, reliability and comfort of the BRT services will provide an attractive alternative to private car use.” [DRD]

In a sense this is a qualified £100m gamble by DRD – a Rapid Transit-light or Metro-plus option whose success will be almost entirely based on the attractiveness, speed and reliability brought by off-board ticketing, junction priority and clear bus lanes. A BBC News report in January 2014 on BRT public awareness events became an unfortunately ironic reminder of the current issues with taxis in bus lanes:

So what is the purpose of a bus lane?

Bus lanes are provided primarily for buses to afford them some priority on the road network in recognition of the fact that the stop/start nature of the operation increases journey times making it unattractive as a mode of transport. Bus lanes provide a better level of service for those choosing to use a more sustainable mode of travel. They are also a very visible indication of our commitment to public transport.” [DRD consultation (PDF, 1.15MB)]

Given the locations in Belfast and current operating times, it might be fair to boil it down to a much more simple level – getting people to and from work. Comparing the importance of buses and taxis in this regard in Belfast is revealing. Bus (+ minibus & coach) commuters outnumber taxi commuters by almost 6 to 1 in Belfast, but the ratio of Metro buses to taxis in the city is 1 to 15:


BRT will naturally target a wider audience through the day, but with vehicles planned to be 18 metre articulated buses with a capacity of around 100 people, and all of the infrastructure works and heavy promotion expected, the number of bus commuters in Belfast should grow. So what will 15 taxis for every Metro bus do to average journey times in Belfast, and the future Rapid Transit system?

The taxis in bus lanes consultation (which cutely avoided any reference to Bus Rapid Transit) was surprisingly clear on the effect:

Allowing all taxis into bus lanes would see the number of vehicles using bus lanes increase. It is highly likely that this will impact on the performance of bus lanes in terms of bus speeds and journey times.” [DRD consultation (PDF, 1.15MB)]

It’s a sensible assessment – taxis allowed in bus lanes will be stopping to collect passengers (BRT’s East and West routes run along mixed residential and commercial streets), stopping to drop off passengers while settling fares, and there will be an increased weight of bus lane traffic queued at junctions. Regardless of this, DRD ploughed ahead with their option to allow all taxis into bus lanes, prioritising taxi customers to the disadvantage of bus passengers and inexplicably gifting the taxi sector a competitive advantage over Bus Rapid Transit.

The Consumer Council’s response to the Taxis in bus lanes consultation (PDF, 488k) strikes at the heart of DRD’s £100m gamble. While neither agreeing or disagreeing with DRD’s proposals, the Council felt the journey time issue hadn’t been thought through:

For [DRD] to implement these proposals whilst recognising they have the potential to increase journey times for public transport passengers appears to contradict aims and targets set by the Department in the Regional Transportation Strategy along with other policies and schemes such as ‘Belfast on the Move’. Any perceived benefit for taxi passengers these proposals may provide must also be considered in light of the potential negative impact on cyclists, users of current public transport services and potential users of the proposed Rapid Transit system proposed for Belfast.

And remember, this is based on the assumption of just 2,000 taxis being allowed in Belfast bus lanes..

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em..

No reference was made to Belfast Rapid Transit in the DRD consultation. No reference was made to similar BRT systems operating in shared space with a significant taxi fleet. No care seems to be given to bus passengers’ journey times and the overall aims of providing a compelling “alternative to private car use”. Just as with the concerns for cycling, DRD seems oddly happy to make a blind raise on bus lane access for thousands of taxis to solve an immediate problem, while gleefully ignoring any long-term negative impacts.

The consultation process does not stand up to serious scrutiny; Belfast taxi fleet numbers assessment only told half the story. The sensible move, given the level of public investment in BRT at this time of austerity, would be to shelve the plan to allow all taxis into bus lanes until BRT has a number of years to bed in. Potential impacts of sharing space with taxis can be assessed in real-time, based on a retaining the hackney cab/wheelchair accessible fleet to operate in bus lanes alongside BRT.

Judging by the reaction to every challenge to their consultation process (during and after) Departmental officials clearly don’t see an issue here. DRD are showing a remarkable poker face, given the incredibly weak hand they’re holding. But who can call their bluff?

One thing missing from the taxis in bus lanes debate is a sense of what it will be like in Belfast once the change happens. With an 8 times increase in permitted taxis due in January 2015, we can draw on the experience of Dublin. Will turning bus lanes into “walls of steel” help to scud our planned cycling revolution?

Typical calm bus lane in Belfast
Typical calm bus lane in Belfast

In Dublin all taxis have access to bus lanes. Local cycling organisations describe the feeling of cycling in bus lanes as encountering a “wall of steel”, with buses, coaches and taxis jostling with those cycling during rush hour.

If you want a sense of how dangerous it feels to mix with impatient taxis in bus lanes, this video from @cyclingvillage really brings it home..

Mike McKillen from suggests our planned increase from 500 permitted taxis to 4,000+ is  a “brutal step-jump in numbers” and his advice for Belfast is clear:

“Taxi drivers are the number one problem for cyclists in Dublin. We get more complaints about taxi driver behaviour than for bus, coach or HGV drivers.

“Don’t give blanket unfettered access – for safety reasons and if you want to grow commuting cycling numbers. A taxi is a private car, and because the driver is not making regular stops at bus stops he/she can attain far higher speeds than a bus, so the risk to cyclists is too high. They are also tempted to ‘skim’ by the rider from within the lane – dangerous overtaking.

“Even if stats do not show a high fatality score due to taxis it is the intimidating wall of steel effect on novice cyclists that stops particularly women cycling and parents letting children cycle in bus lanes. They are no longer ‘cycle’ lanes as a result of pressure from taxi numbers and driving style.”

How many videos do you want?



Mixing fast, impatient taxis with relatively slow cyclists isn’t a recipe for a healthy upsurge in cycling – it favours the faster, younger (and typically male) cycle commuter type who is forced into taking the lane in primary position for his own preservation, if a taxi driver obliges. Do we want Belfast to be a city where cycling in rush hour can be a social activity, or where it’s no wonder cyclists get knocked down for being in the way of taxis? Whether the intimidation is subjective or all too evident, and judging by some of the hand gestures there’s certainly little love for those on two wheels. It’s the regular encounters that will gradually grind you down and chase people in Belfast off their bicycles and back into their cars.

All of the videos linked above were made by @cyclingvillage. Keith talks about his former main route and how regular encounters with taxis in bus lanes which make for a “horrible daily experience” has meant changing the way he cycles around Dublin:

“The particular route itself and the taxi driver behaviour is a terrible combination. I don’t cycle it anymore – it’s that simple. It’s a heavy traffic direct route into the city and because people driving are going directly into the city, the traffic is heavy in the outside lanes. This leaves a narrow corridor where taxi drivers expect to overtake within the bus lane. This is not possible with a safe passing distance. The driving can be too close and too fast. It’s a real confidence-shaker.

“There must be space given for segregation. The route I take now has mostly segregated cycle track and the problems with behaviour I typically find are in the bus lanes with taxis. When you cycle in a bus lane and we’re all supposed to “share the road”, you typically find yourself at the mercy of each driver.”

“This can be scary at times; bullying behaviour with purposeful close driving and beeping at you to insist you get out of the way. It is not behaviour that will increase cycling numbers and enhance cycling culture. It’s a real turn-off for people wanting to cycle.”

What is striking about many of Keith’s videos is the almost unbelievable pressure which various taxi drivers put on cyclists. From following within inches of a back wheel hoping to squeeze past, to beeping the horn at people who are travelling in a perfectly legal fashion, the common denominator seems to be taxi drivers feeling inconvenienced by those on bicycles. This is incredibly rare in Belfast – at the moment.

Just in case you think that Dublin is unique in the way taxis interact with cyclists in bus lanes, here’s similar behaviour occurring in Leeds – is this just inevitable behaviour?



I’ve made the case for government to value the perception of safety, but it can be a little abstract for decision-makers who don’t often find themselves on two wheels in Belfast. Dublin shows that cyclists are regularly hassled by impatient taxi drivers who exhibit behaviour ranging from unreasonable to plainly dangerous. It’s far removed from places like Copenhagen or the Netherlands, where cycling is normal for everyone because it’s designed to be safe. Bus lanes are not our answer, but until we invest to catch up with the best cycling cities, they serve an important purpose.

We’re planning to create better, safer routes to encourage more people of all ages and abilities to cycle around Belfast – so why throw us to the wolves?

So when all taxis get into Belfast bus lanes from January 2015, exactly how many vehicles will be jostling with bicycles and buses?

In 2013 a high-profile campaign and street protest tried to stop the plan to increase the number of taxis allowed in Belfast bus lanes from 500 to a scary 2,000. When the arguments died down questions emerged about the official figures, suggesting a gross underestimation. A media exposé confirmed something was amiss, and the issue reached the Northern Ireland Assembly. And then, when all went quiet, things got really interesting..

Only half the story..

The Department for Regional Development (DRD) consultation on allowing taxis into bus lanes ran during the late summer of 2012. It included figures sourced from the Department of the Environment (DOE) on the number of taxis in Northern Ireland (shown with explanations in Fightback | Taxis in bus lanes). The consultation was pitched as a Northern Ireland-wide issue, but it was effectively a highly-focused Belfast-based policy change, with 99% of Northern Ireland’s bus lanes located in the Greater Belfast area.

This meant an accurate assessment of the number of taxis in Belfast, and their concentrated impact on bus lanes, was crucial. The Belfast City Hall protest figure of 2,000 taxis was reached by adding 506 yellow plates and 1,532 green plates together, as presented in the consultation. It was known to be a conservative estimate, as many of the 219 taxi buses were likely to operate in Belfast too.

The late Tom McClelland leading the protest against 2,000 taxis in bus lanes

The 7,629 ‘white plate’ licence taxis operated as Public Hire Outside Belfast, so were naturally discounted. In case there was any doubt, DRD officials had erased it in front of the Regional Development Committee on 28th November 2012:

Seán Lynch MLA: “What additional volume of private taxis using bus lanes will this proposal bring about, and what impact will it actually have on buses?”

DRD official: “Well, the numbers that were identified in the consultation document in March 2012 [repeat of consultation numbers 1,532, 506, 7,629, 219] .. if you look at total volumes of traffic on the road, those are relatively small numbers. Obviously Belfast [sic] Public Hire Outside Belfast will not generally be in the Belfast area. So the numbers .. there’ll not be a huge influx of additional traffic into the bus lanes. The number of taxis may rise by, those figures may rise by 3 times the number of taxis that we have, but that will not have a significant, should not have a significant impact on any one bus lane or any one location.”

Seán Lynch MLA: “Just, I would say that is a fairly significant increase.”

DRD official (later): “I don’t think there’ll be a significant jump in the numbers that are using the lanes, and I don’t think it will have a, hopefully not a, significant impact on cyclists.”

2,000 then, give or take a few.

The phantom fleet..

However in the aftermath of the protest, sources within the taxi industry began to question our figures. It was claimed that the “there are around 4,000 private hire vehicles in Belfast”, with more than 2,000 taxis working in the city while licensed as ‘white plates’.


It’s important to note that it’s perfectly legal to operate within Belfast using a white plate licensed taxi, and there is absolutely no deception at work here – sources indicated it was simply down to the way taxis were licensed. It’s not even particularly problematic, save that it masks a potentially brutal impact on bus lanes.


Being wary of the unique competing interests of the fractured Belfast taxi lobbies (hundreds of taxis drivers who are already permitted in bus lanes actually support  the cycling campaign) caution and evidence was needed. Could this claim really be true?


Pennies started to drop looking at the population spread in Northern Ireland. According to the figures gleaned from the DRD consultation, just one fifth of the total NI taxi fleet operated in Belfast, yet the population of the Belfast Metropolitan Area (where all the bus lanes are) was over one third of total population of Northern Ireland. My inner ‘sixth form economics pupil’ began to scream “supply and demand” at this point.


15 taxis for every Metro bus?

To get to the bottom of the issue, a provocative graphic was created to give a new perspective. Although buses clearly move the most people in this bus lanes, it was remarkable to many that bicycles vastly outnumbered all other vehicles.

The taxi figure of 4,500 was produced by adding 3 taxis categories together (green plate, yellow plate and white/blue taxi bus plate) along with 2,000 white plate taxis, and generously rounded. It left 2 crucial questions hanging – was this the actual number of taxis scuttling about Belfast’s streets, and (if so) should taxis be allowed to utterly dominate bus lanes?


The reaction was swift and seemingly decisive. Linda Stewart of the Belfast Telegraph spent an enlightening hour counting taxis passing by St. Anne’s Cathedral, noting their licence plate colour. She observed that a majority of taxis were white plates (51 out of 79) putting DRD’s assessment of taxi numbers in question. Had the consultation exercise left everyone to comment on an unrealistic estimate?

David McNarry of the Regional Development Committee picked up on the numbers issue and, along with Sustrans and others, brought it to the attention of the Minister. One Departmental response, seen by NI Greenways, directly challenged the claims:

“The headline figure of 4,500 appears to be based on a fairly rudimentary calculation .. with an approximation of the numbers of white plated .. the origin of which is unknown .. the use of the estimated ‘white plate’ figure is questionable”.

Enter McCausland..

In a remarkable twist, the owners of the “Big Two” Belfast taxi firms, William McCausland of fonaCAB and Stephen McCausland of Value Cabs unexpectedly entered the fray. The two firms (in fierce competition with each other remember) penned a joint letter to the Regional Development Committee:

“We are aware of recent press interest in this and wanted to clarify for you some inaccurate information that has been published in some media outlets.

In particular, a suggestion has been made that figures put forward in the consultation by the Department in relation to the increased numbers of taxis which would operate in bus lanes have been underestimated and are incorrect.

We firmly believe that this is not the case and that, instead, the figures reported in the press are inaccurate and indeed, wholly unrealistic.

One article reported that as many as 4,500 taxis would be using bus lanes in Belfast, which includes “2,500 white-plate private hire taxis”.

This is incorrect.”

Why this curious intervention by the Big Two? This was an argument between cycle campaigners and DRD over data supplied by DOE. It was a simple case of mathematics – you can’t lobby away an objective measure. But this is Northern Ireland, so anything is possible..


Value Cabs and fonaCAB (while massive companies) don’t represent the entire taxi sector in Northern Ireland. So how could they possibly know the total number of taxis in Belfast, especially if (as was becoming clear) the statutory licensing body wasn’t entirely sure?

Was a suggestion of 4,500 taxis that much of a game-changer for public and political opinion that the private hire taxi lobby felt compelled to intervene?

And then suddenly, just as cycling campaigners prepared to get stuck in to the issue, everything changed. Taxi reform was halted in June 2013 and the spectre of 4,500 taxis in bus lanes disappeared from view. The debate over the size of the taxi fleet passed out of public knowledge as quickly as it has risen..

“And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” (Tolkien)


Fast forward to today and with taxi access seemingly inevitable by January 2015, this thorny issue remains largely unknown and unresolved. How many taxis actually operate in the greater Belfast area?

Luckily in the interim, a DOE-commissioned report “Review of Wheelchair Accessible Taxis in N Ireland” has provided an extremely comprehensive overview of the local taxi sector (in beautiful symmetry) between November 2012 and May 2013. The section which breaks down the Northern Ireland taxi fleet makes for interesting reading..


That’s 6 hacks shy of 4,000 taxis operating in the greater Belfast area according to DOE. And we’re not done yet – this report excludes “taxi buses”, which according to those highly reliable figures in the consultation (219) bumps this total up to over 4,200 taxis operating in the greater Belfast area.

It’s clear that white plate taxis operating inside Belfast must make up the balance. Indeed, this is partially explained in the McCauslands’ letter, where for “registration purposes” white plates are required to be displayed by:

“drivers who may live outside of Belfast but choose to work in the city. In this way there are 20-25 of Value Cabs and 20 fonaCab drivers who work in Belfast but have white-plates as they live outside the city.”

So it turns out that our many sources, cycling campaigners, politicians and the Belfast Telegraph were remarkably on the ball with their estimate of the Belfast taxi fleet. Of course not every taxi will be in those lanes when they’re operational, but then neither will all the other permitted vehicles. What matters is the massive increase in taxis to skew the ratios and outnumber all other users combined – truly we could rename these spaces ‘taxi lanes’.

We campaigned against 4 times the current number of taxis getting into bus lanes – DRD said around 3 times more taxis would be the impact, and now we can be clear that there will be..

at least 8 times as many taxis in Belfast bus lanes

..once this change happens.

This opens up a raft of questions for government:

  • Does DRD still stand over the “3 times” increase assessment?
  • How flawed was the consultation process especially given 86% of people objected?
  • Can the Driver and Vehicle Agency actually provide a 100% accurate assessment of Belfast taxis?
  • What work has been done on the impact on Metro / Rapid Transit of 8 times the number of taxis using bus lanes?

In the meantime, the graphic below remains the most accurate explanation of how allowing all taxis into bus lanes will affect the balance of transport in Belfast (save for some truly epic increases in cycling in the last few years). After crunching the numbers, the numbers are crushing.

This one’s for you Tom..

UPDATE – 4 November 2014

Peter Weir MLA (he being two-time Cycling MLA of the Year in Northern Ireland) pursued the white plate taxi issue with the Minister of the Environment in a written question at the Northern Ireland Assembly:

AQW 37855/11-15 many vehicles with … advanced booking only plates currently operate from private hire companies within Belfast city limits.

DOE could have looked at the article above, looked to its own report (quoted above) for an estimate of the size of the ‘phantom fleet’ of white plate taxis operating in Belfast (it’s over 4,000 in case you didn’t already know) but instead the Department which is leading on taxi reform, which wants to revolutionise the taxi sector in Northern Ireland and improve the experience of customers and operators DOES NOT KNOW HOW MANY TAXIS ARE OPERATING IN BELFAST..

Information is not stored on the Taxi Licensing IT system in a way that would facilitate your request for the number of advanced booking only plates currently operating from private hire companies within Belfast city limits.

Neither DOE nor DRD are in any position to properly assess the impact of flooding Belfast’s bus lanes with taxis. This farcical situation rumbles on – the absurd Taxis in Bus Lanes policy lies in tatters, but it is STILL being pushed against all will – except that of private taxi firm owners. Take a bow DOE.

It’s not surprising that an issue like taxis in bus lanes can turn emotive. The toll on perception of cycling safety has been passionately expressed through public comments in a 2013 petition. (Current) ‘private hire’ taxi drivers in the media convey a sense of an important public service being denied a rightful place in bus lanes, describing access as “essential“, “important” or key to “enhancing and improving the taxi industry”.

But what is the actual impact of restricting bus lane access for these taxis? NI Greenways got hold of a bucket of white paint and added some much-needed perspective..

Bus Lanes 22 hours

Is this really so restrictive in the grand scheme of things, only on weekdays? The addition of new Belfast city centre bus lanes with longer operating hours makes muddying the waters easy for the taxi lobby, but this simple idea holds true across most of the city.

But how much of the city has this (dare I say) minor restriction for (current) private hire taxis?


58km of roads with a bus lane seems like a pretty small proportion of the city’s total road network, even if they’re situated on routes with high traffic demand. Amazingly even Belfast’s cycle lane network is longer!

The majority of Belfast’s bus lanes operate for just 120 minutes or less in the morning rush hour. Bus lanes with extended operation account for just 6km, and includes many areas outside of the city centre.

With around 100 bus lanes across Belfast where taxis could be put into competition with cyclists by allowing access, the median bus lane length is just 320 metres. Is this really so crucial to overall taxi journey times in the city?

Demands, but little demand

When the owners of the big taxi firms play up the importance of bus lane access for their businesses and customers (and they will) remember this:

“It is also important to highlight that of the total number of taxis operating in Belfast, the majority do so at evenings and weekends – times when there is little or no use of bus lanes by other road users.” 
William McCausland [fonaCAB] and Stephen McCausland [Value Cabs], correspondence with Regional Development Committee, April 2013

Taxi firm owners can’t have this both ways – if bus lanes aren’t essential to the majority of their operational fleet, then why do they demand access?

If only there was government-commissioned research to give us an important perspective on the size of their passenger market during bus lane hours..


Almost every AM bus lane in Belfast (city and metropolitan area) ceases operation at 9.30am – well ahead of the peak demand for taxi trips in the city. There’s little doubt that peak demand from commuters by bus, motorcycle and bicycle (not to mention private vehicles) is exactly in morning bus lane operating hours. So why is bus lane access so essential for (current) private taxis again?

There’s greater taxi demand in the evening (in the city but not metropolitan area) but the city’s PM rush hour is less congested than the AM version – you only need look at the PM bus lane lengths and hours of operation (in blue, above) to see the difference.

Those little windows of opportunity for enjoy calm and clear bus lanes are greatly valued by people cycling in Belfast, and are crucial to the continued success of the Metro bus system. They’re clearly coveted by private taxi firms and drivers, but it’s important to remember how little of the road system bus lanes take up during short periods, and how little use taxis claim they’ll make of them – backed up by a remarkable lack of demand.

Next: 4,000+ taxis in bus lanes..

In 2013 hundreds of people with an interest in protecting cycling took to the streets of Belfast, signed a petition or engaged their politicians to stop thousands of taxis being allowed into bus lanes. The issue disappeared, but this wasn’t a victory – simply a delay. Decisions in the next few weeks will determine the future of sustainable transport in Northern Ireland.


Department of the Environment (DOE) Minister Mark H Durkan has now announced a timetable to implement Taxi Reform, with single-tier licensing expected to become operational in January 2015. But what does that mean?

Continue reading “Fightback | Taxis in bus lanes”

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy is in the final stages of considering whether to allow all taxis into bus lanes in Northern Ireland. What appeared just weeks ago to be a done deal in favour of the taxi lobby, has been thrown into the mix again by vocal opposition from ordinary commuters in Belfast. But are Departmental officials giving enough weight to the perception of safety among current cyclists, and crucially the thousands of people Belfast needs to convince to switch to the bike?

The case presented by the Department for Regional Development (DRD) for allowing all taxis into bus lanes is fundamentally weak. Private taxi firms are the only group lobbying for the proposal, and no compelling argument has been brought in favour. It remains the ‘easy’ solution for DRD’s dilemma posed by DOE taxi reform, yet transforms and exaggerates a small scale inconvenience for taxi drivers into a major worry for (current and potential) cyclists in bus lanes.

Taxis want access to bus lanes simply to speed past rush hour traffic – this is clear and obvious. Yet this clashes with both the requirement for an efficient, reliable and attractive bus service (DRD admit bus journey times will be slowed) and the view among cyclists that 2,000+ taxis threatens the sense and reality of safety and security on their journey.

Image supplied by DRD Travelwise

Foxes in the chicken coop

Cyclists launched a campaign against the plan with a City Hall protest and a petition, handed in to the Minister on 13th March. Among the 500+ signatories, many added personal comments to the petition – 76% quoted “safety of bus lanes” as their major concern, effectively a ‘subjective‘ view that private taxis will lessen safety. Views on this ranged from individuals reconsidering their own journey choice to the common belief that it will damage cycling across the city.

Yet to counter cyclists’ fears, DRD officials have been quoting accident statistics in bus lanes. The following was part of a Roads Service submission to the Stormont Regional Development Committee:

“The main issue that was brought up in the consultation was the adverse impact to safety of cyclists, and if I could elaborate a little bit on that … the information we have in the last 3 years up to March ’11, showed that there were very few collisions actually in bus lanes, and of the collisions that were caused in bus lanes were actually crossing manoeuvres; vehicles that were actually crossing from the main traffic flow across the bus lane, possibly into side streets. That was the main cause. In fact the information we have, no accidents that were actually caused between vehicles that were actually allowed to use the bus lane, that were permitted to be there. So from that point of view, we feel that the vehicles that actually use the bus lane and the causation of accidents in the bus lane obviously isn’t an issue … we feel that it will not, hopefully, have a detrimental effect to the safety of cyclists.”

In one sense DRD have done their job correctly here – measuring objective safety and declaring that bus lanes are demonstrably safe spaces for cyclists. But DRD have told us what we already know, and why we’re trying to retain this ‘safer’ network. Not particularly enlightening.

On the other hand, the flawed logic could be compared to a farmer who protects his hen house with a wire fence and strong lock at night. With no evidence or experience of attacks on hens, he takes it as proof that allowing foxes into the coop shouldn’t be detrimental to the safety of hens.

Perception of safety is valued by policy makers (elsewhere)

There are moves to add perception of risk and safety to transport planning in other areas, notably by the Department for Transport in Whitehall. But it seems policy makers in Northern Ireland have little to go on other than collision stats. The situation is quite different in countries where cycling as transport is valued.

Copenhagen is a city where 36% of all trips to work or places of education are made by bike, and they are aiming for 50% as their next milestone between 2015 and 2025 (Belfast has no targets). In their current bicycle strategy document, there is a clear distinction made between accidents (objective safety) and the “sense of security” (subjective safety):

Traffic safety has been greatly improved over the past few years. Statistically, the risk of being involved in a serious accident has fallen by 72% per cycled kilometre since 1996. Copenhageners’ sense of security in the traffic has also improved of late. If this sense of security is to rise even further among current cyclists and potential cyclists alike, the most important areas of focus are creating more space on the cycle tracks, making intersections safer and using behavioural campaigns to improve consideration in traffic – including on the cycle tracks. The general traffic safety efforts are also very important. For example, reducing speed limits for cars where necessary.

In the Netherlands, the principles of ‘sustainable safety’ would mean conflict between fast taxis and slower cyclists would be designed out of, not into, road policy. SWOV, the Institute for Road Safety Research, has also studied subjective safety in traffic (for all users), and points out the weak relationship between objective and subjective safety – which at the very least should lead DRD to question the role of accident statistics as the sole determining factor in the taxi decision. Recognising that at the extremes fear of traffic may affect individual travel choice, the question must be asked about the value of improving subjective safety:

If the objective is the reduction of the number of road casualties, then improving subjective safety in traffic is hardly important. If the objective is to use feelings of being unsafe as an indicator for possible dormant road safety hazards, it is important to assess the validity of these complaints and signals. If the objective is to make people feel at ease in their living environment, and to prevent them from feeling that their own mobility or that of others is impeded by feelings of being unsafe in traffic, then improving subjective safety is important.

Should DRD be using an ‘objective’ measure to dismiss a ‘subjective’ fear, especially one which has great potential to limit personal choices? If the third goal listed above extends to the desire for adding more cyclists to the transport mix in Belfast, then DRD are duty bound to research, evaluate and seek to improve subjective safety of cycling, something worryingly absent from the consultation and the rush to bow to taxi firms’ wishes.

Taxi in the right place: will safer space means more 'normal' cyclists?

And in reality, it’s not as if DRD are lacking for evidence of a problem here. The PARC study linked to the ongoing development of the Connswater Community Greenway found that 60% of people felt roads were too dangerous for cycling, and this in an area of Belfast with some of the highest concentrations of commuter cyclists. Similar findings are available from just down the road in Dublin (report) in a city where for years all taxis have been allowed in bus lanes, or ‘pipes of steel’ as many cyclists would refer to them.

DRD’s own bible for road development, the Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan 2015 (BMTP) deals with this area. If we quickly brush past embarrassing sentences like “On heavily trafficked roads cycle routes would be expected to be provided as fully segregated facilities” (Dutch-style paths in Belfast? Not on DRD’s watch!) we see that subjective criteria such as safety is considered important:

Attractiveness: Routes must be attractive to cyclists on subjective as well as objective criteria. Lighting, personal safety, aesthetics, noise and integration with the surrounding area are important (my emphasis)

But then judging by the preceding sentence, the BMTP is a wacky tome, from which planners can pick and choose as they desire (see: the largely forgotten Gasworks Bridge).

It’s fair to assume most people who signed the taxis in bus lanes petition cycle regularly on roads, and the message from those who added comments was clear. 76% of people specifically mentioned bus lanes as being valuable safe space for cycling. 25% believed taxis are a uniquely dangerous form of transport, 20% were convinced the plan runs contrary to DRD policies to promote sustainable transport, and interestingly 6% of people indicated that giving up cycling as a result of this plan was a serious option.

We’re making a clear point, but is anyone listening?

The problem with collision statistics #1

DRD’s evidence showing “accidents in the bus lanes obviously isn’t an issue” is based on existing bus lane conditions, which of course doesn’t include the private hire taxis that so concern cyclists. Not only will bus lane traffic be doubled, it will be made more competitive, with new faster vehicles mixing with existing slower users. If you don’t think taxis will create more dangerous situations for cyclists in bus lanes, here’s what William McCausland from Fonacab stated after the City Hall cycling protest:

“The taxis aren’t nearly as large as the buses, so their ability to manoeuvre around the cyclists is going to be much simpler.” Source: UTV

This is exactly the type of reckless attitude that has brought us to this point of protest. Most Belfast bus lanes are at most 3 metres wide. There just isn’t the required safe clearance for a saloon car to pass a cyclist within the boundaries of a bus lane with traffic to the right. This is the type of impatient manoeuvre we so fear, and Fonacab are clearly chomping at the bit to let their drivers engage in. It’s so worrying that a ‘professional road user’ running a taxi firm would have so loose a grasp of Rule 163 of the Highway Code.

“give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car”

NI Direct: Highway Code rules 162-169: Overtaking

The problem with collision statistics #2

There is also the troubling issue of relying on collision figures as a true measure of objective road safety. Our friends from pointed to a startling piece of research was commissioned in Ireland to attempt to inform road safety policy with an idea of the under-reporting of RTCs. The report showed that the Road Safety Authority’s collision figures were grossly out of step with the numbers of people actually admitted to and discharged from hospital as a result of a RTC – which was 3.5 times greater.

However, when it came to cyclists, over the five year period from 2005-09 the RSA reported 109 seriously injured cyclists on Ireland’s roads. The number of hospital discharges for cyclists involved in a RTC in the same period was 1,050: “The difference in numbers is almost ten-fold“. This is truly shocking.

This struck me on a personal level. I was knocked down just over two years ago, by a vehicle using an operational bus lane illegally. I didn’t require hospital treatment, but at the same time I didn’t report the issue to the PSNI either. Another unreported collision, among how many every year in Northern Ireland?

Cycling in Northern Ireland becoming more dangerous?

Undeniably cycling is becoming more dangerous here, even before allowing taxis in bus lanes. Between 2004 and 2011 road safety has improved in Northern Ireland. However the rate of cyclists killed or seriously injured showed a sharp increase in 2010-11. Broadening it out to include minor casualties as well, the trend is upwards for cycling against a downward trend generally.

Comparison of road user KSI rates in NI 2004-2011 (DOE)

There’s little indication DRD have even recognised this as a particular developing problem, judging by the rush to place thousands of cyclists into conflict with thousands of taxis on tight bus lanes during the busiest periods on our roads.

Bus lanes = cycling network

How crucial are bus lanes to cycling in Belfast at present? DRD development of the Belfast arterial road network has produced a repeating pattern – citybound bus lanes for the morning commute, advisory cycle lanes mainly on the countrybound evening side, with some bus lanes substituting. According to DRD there is just 1.32 miles of segregated cycle tracks in Belfast, with many more areas shared with pedestrians, to varying degrees of usefulness/convenience/safety.

Typical citybound bus lane and countrybound cycle lane set up

But the 48km of bus lanes constitutes a vast swathe of Belfast’s commuter cycling space, especially in the highly congested morning rush. Ignoring subjective safety concerns of existing cyclists will tip the balance of risk and reward in the favour of more private car travel, and all the problems that will bring for Belfast as a city trying to keep pace with modern development – while London’s vision puts us to shame.

The gut feeling that DRD have it all wrong

Ultimately this comes down to instinct. Those of us who currently use a bike on the road make our choice based on the balance of risk and reward for cycling in rush hour, and safer spaces have been demonstrated to make a difference even in Belfast, with rises of over 200% in a decade in some areas. Belfast is still in a period of cycling growth, but there’s no guarantee this will continue without investment in safer infrastructure and signalling to non-cyclists that safety concerns are being factored into transport planning. The gut feeling that roads are not a safe place to be on a bike clearly holds so many people back from cycling, male or female, young or old, rich or poor.

It’s not all bad news from DRD; this is the department which is radically altering Belfast city centre with the goal of improving sustainable transport. And they’re providing the kick start funding for Belfast Bike Hire, which has the potential to transform the city in the long run. But for that to be a success will require many thousands of people, many who have never cycled before, to feel safe enough to pedal the roads of Belfast. If it doesn’t feel safe, it just won’t be attractive.

We are fighting to hold back the tide, with bus lanes rightly valued as some of the safest road space we have. Our low levels of cycling will tell you that bus lanes alone are not the answer, and many people simply will not cycle in traffic at all due to fear. But if we value the rises in cycling seen recently, how can we expect to build upon it when the little safe space we have is being taken away and turned into taxi expressways?

An announcement is due soon from Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy on allowing taxis full access to bus lanes in Northern Ireland. With Department for Regional Development (DRD) officials recommending go ahead over clear, vocal and overwhelming objections, it’s time to take quick a step back and ask how we got to this point, and why DRD’s priorities are so muddled? Here are five key issues:

Taxi in cycle lane
The harmonious taxi/cycling relationship


Apologies to the rest of NI for another Belfast-centric post, but the vast majority of bus lanes are situated in the greater Belfast area, and one fifth of taxis currently operate here, which could rise under the new licensing regime.

How much will this damage cycling uptake?

Belfast has an ‘aspiration’ to raise the level of cycling in the city to 10% modal share by 2020. Not an official target mind you, which might bind a government department to actually delivering it. This why we fail – we still have one of the lowest modal shares in the whole of Europe.

In the decade to 2011 there has been 60% rise in the number of Belfast commuter cyclists – that’s a 2.1% modal share and almost 2,300 regular cycling commuters. Some areas of south Belfast are already upwards of 5% modal share. We need to add over 8,000 more cyclists to Belfast rush hour to get to 10% share.

This kind of massive surge hasn’t happened to date, so why would busier, more intimidating bus lanes make it more likely to happen?

And what do we lose by denying taxis the use of bus lanes? 24% less people travel to work by taxi than in 2001, down to just over 3,000 people, or a 2.9% share. If these two trends continue, cycle commuters will reach parity with taxi commuters by 2015, and by the next census, the current levels will be reversed in cycling’s favour. That would be just 3,000 cyclists by the way – if we want a total of 10,000 cyclists on our rush hour bus lanes by 2020, why threaten that aspiration for the sake of dwindling numbers of taxi users? Madness.

Why are people in Belfast dissuaded from road cycling? In a recent survey of Belfast residents, 60% of people felt roads were too dangerous for cyclingSo why is DRD salting the earth for the sake of a declining taxi commuting sector?

Taxi in cycle box
Ahh, you get the idea of these pictures… (taxi+bike=no)


Why has DRD not listened to objections?

86% of the rubber stamp exercise consultation responses were negative, yet how did DRD choose to handle this? With a real slap in the face to those who responded with the ‘wrong’ view – lumping everyone together with one phrase, “mostly from cyclists“, and dismissing all fears as unfounded.

I’m guessing there’s a warped logic at work – if you can distill 60 objections in to one incorrect opinion, and weigh that against fully 7 (seven) responses welcoming the proposed changes, then we have a majority in favour! That’s how government works! The logic doesn’t work both ways though – just ignore the fact that the 7 (seven) positive responses were mainly from private taxi hire firms. Shhh!

Given the overwhelming negative view on the issue, how will DRD address cyclists’ safety concerns? See if you can hear it..

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Audio sourced from the Northern Ireland Assembly – subject to Parliamentary copyright.

If you sent an objection in to DRD, why not follow it up with a complaint that your objection has been effectively disregarded?

Northern Ireland taxis are now…sustainable? Really?!

The whole world will shortly be coming to Northern Ireland to learn how we’ve solved that pesky problem of motor vehicles wrecking the environment. A saloon car taxi (typical of the roughly 1,500 Belfast private hire vehicles) might carry an average of 1-2 passengers per fare, and yet DRD are claiming sustainability is no longer an issue! Listen to this:

[soundcloud url=”″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Audio sourced from the Northern Ireland Assembly – subject to Parliamentary copyright.

In a public policy exercise as intellectually bankrupt and dishonest as taxis in bus lanes, this marks a new low.

All those saloon cars driving around with 1-2 passengers are perfectly sustainable, as long as they are designated so by government.

DRD should pass this trick on to the Department for Finance and Personnel. Northern Ireland can dump Air Passenger Duty for short haul flights too by simply designating all aircraft as ‘sustainable’. I think Sammy Wilson might actually be game enough to try it..

Another taxi in a cycle box Belfast
Dirty polluting taxi about to magically become a sustainable vehicle


Why damage journey times for 13.5% of commuters, for the sake of 2.9% of commuters?

There are no government targets to increase taxi usage – why would there be? Yet this entire policy seems entirely designed for that one purpose. Meanwhile, by the hard numbers from Census 2011 again, 13.5% of people use buses to get to work. In terms of sustainable objectives, reducing rush hour traffic and increasing revenue take for Translink, more bus passengers is a big goal for Belfast.

Just 2.9% of people used a taxi as their main form of transport to work in 2011, down from 4% in 2001.

Metro and Bus Rapid Transit efficiency of service will be one of the big factors which determine success of public transport in Belfast. The consultation itself recognised that taxis in bus lanes would have a negative impact on buses. A report from Amey in 2008 stated “bus lanes are currently underperforming against targets…additional vehicles in the bus lane … would probably contribute to further reduced bus journey speeds”.

How destructive can one little policy be?!



What is really driving this policy?

Taxi firms must have some truly amazing lobbying powers. Northern Ireland’s wonderfully transparent political system doesn’t allow us the luxury of seeing donations to political parties. So we’re left to wonder why such a poorly designed policy is being railroaded through a hostile consultation exercise, and if the policy wonks have given any weight to the potential damage it could cause?

Is Minister Kennedy running the risk of fatally undermining both Belfast Rapid Transit and the city’s blossoming cycling potential? Two birds, one stone – well it’s more efficient than a Belfast bus lane.



What the people say about taxis in bus lanes

Please consider sending your own views on this issue to DRD before the deadline of Friday 21st September 2012. Details on the DRD website:

Taxis in bus lanes consultation

More detailed analysis of the impact the preferred option may have on cycling in Belfast:

Taxis in bus lanes a backward step for cycling


Northern Ireland Greenways is an awareness campaign to highlight opportunities to open more dedicated traffic-free pedestrian and cycling infrastructure across Northern Ireland. The Comber Greenway model informs the potential to reopen more of Northern Ireland’s 600 miles of disused railway lines as long distance traffic-free leisure, commuting and tourist routes. Northern Ireland Greenways also campaigns for improved urban cycling infrastructure based on international best practice, putting a fair level of investment into cycling proportionate to targeted journey share, pushing for Roads Service to ensure Belfast’s existing cycling infrastructure works as intended, and lobbying for hard targets, budget and commitment from the Northern Ireland government.

I welcome the opportunity to comment on the consultation document. I also welcome the changes to taxi licensing which has brought about this proposal. A simpler system should benefit all taxi customers in Northern Ireland.

I strongly disagree with DRD’s preference for allowing all taxis to access bus lanes. This stems from DRD’s particular understanding of what ‘access’ should mean.

There are two main criticisms of the consultation document and the reasoning behind the preference for ‘Option 3’. I implore DRD not proceed on the basis of flawed reasoning, which does little to account for the potential to impact on cycling levels and accepts that bus journeys will be slowed across the city.

1. Cyclists will be dissuaded from using bus lanes

There is scant consideration given to cyclists in this consultation. As a commuter cyclist for over 10 years, I have relied upon the relative calm of bus lanes as an incentive on my commuting route. Fast cars or stationary traffic do not affect me while in an operational bus lane. Permitted taxis are infrequent, as are motorcycles. Bus drivers are generally respectful and considerate towards cyclists. It is worth noting that most Metro bus services are scheduled to operate at and average of 10mph or less, meaning cyclists mix quite well with buses in Belfast. Bus drivers benefit from a level of training and professional development which is not required of taxi drivers.

However, the new taxi system would mean a vast increase in faster, competitive users of bus lanes. The added pressure of impatient taxis behind me, which the consultation document predicts may be a common (and multiple) occurrence on a typical cycling journey in Belfast, would make me seriously consider giving up cycling to work. I would struggle to justify taking the risk of cycling in a more dangerous road environment. If an experienced and committed commuter cyclist thinks this way, you can tell the policy is flawed.

The study figures which are presented in the consultation point to a potential doubling of traffic within within bus lanes. How is this attractive to someone who wishes to ditch the car and cycle to work?

It is very clear from Belfast urban development trends that separated cycling infrastructure is not on the agenda for DRD, at least not within the next 5 years (Answer to AQW 7074). Cycling development is driven by a ‘bare minimum’ and ‘fit it in where possible’ approach, both in terms of road space and budgetary priority. So bus lanes are marketed as cycling infrastructure, and it seems that advisory cycle lanes and bus lanes are as good as it’s going to get for cycling in Belfast. (See STEM information – headline of 3.6km of new cycle lanes is in fact 1km of cycle lane and 2.6km of bus lanes)

So then why make bus lanes a less attractive option for people who may consider modal shift from private car travel? The one thing that separates cyclists from car, van, truck, bus (excepting motorcyclists) is a perception of personal danger. It is a key barrier to utility cycling. An excerpt from Belfast City Council’s response to the recent consultation on the draft Northern Ireland Active Travel Strategy is instructive. A short council staff survey on attitudes to cycling (and walking) showed that “a lack of adequate infrastructure closely coupled to personal safety issues have been the primary barriers to the uptake of active travel in Belfast” and further pointed to the Department for Transport Local Transport Note 2/08 on Cycle Infrastructure Design which “recommends that traffic volumes and speeds should be reduced where possible to create safer conditions for cycling.”

The preference to allow all taxis in bus lanes flies in the face of these points. However this is not to suggest taxis should be completely restricted from bus lanes. This is where the consultation fails to provide real choice, and confuses two fundamentally separate issues.

2. Taxis do need ‘access’ to bus lanes, but not a full right of travel along their length

The choice of options, indeed the whole direction of the consultation document, revolves around point 7.5.

The thrust of the deciding argument is that all taxis must be allowed access to bus lanes to effectively ply their trade, picking up and dropping off fares in an otherwise restricted area. I fully agree that customers expect taxis be able to stop when hailed, but I am very disappointed by the restrictive nature of the options which DRD presents.

While Option 1 would obviously be of most benefit to cyclists, it must be recognised that it is unfair to taxi drivers.

Option 2 mirrors the present situation. Given the changes in legislation it is an unworkable solution which is open to great criticism and possible challenge. DRD do a disservice by presenting this as beneficial to disabled taxi users. If bus lanes are being identified as a facility which should benefit disabled road users, why are DRD not proposing opening bus lanes to private car owners with blue badges?

Option 3 is presented as the only workable solution. Yet all of the arguments presented in favour are on a very narrow focus – the need and right to access a lane to collect or discharge passengers at the roadside. But option 3 gives taxis much more than this – the full right to travel in bus lanes, as permitted taxis have now.

This would give a non-sustainable form of transport a speed advantage over private cars, while reducing the efficiency of bus services, and scaring cyclists off the road.

What surprises and disappoints me is that DRD do not seem to have considered a true compromise, which fairly balances the needs of all bus lane users – let’s call it option 4. Taxis need access to the roadside on operational bus lanes. They would have this anyway under option 3, potentially delaying other bus lane users during short periods of waiting. I agree taxis should be allowed the right to do this. Taxis however do not need the right to travel the full length of bus lanes, and indeed the consultation presents no arguments why this is necessary.

For the very few occasions (as referenced in the consultation) that a customer hails a cab from a roadside with an operational bus lane, the taxi can pull over to collect, and then vacate the bus lane and merge back into traffic.

Providing this legislative framework would satisfy all needs without the drastic compromises presented by DRD’s 3 options. Enforcement of bus lanes would remain quite straightforward, cyclists would not be put off by faster competitive traffic, and the right for taxis to ply trade would be fairly catered for.

If taxis were allowed full right of travel, about 50% of journeys will be without passengers, with empty taxis rushing to get to the next job (perhaps pre-booked) as quickly as possible. Although now a level playing field, many taxis will still be booked by phone, and this is a very competitive market. Taxi drivers can become impatient when ‘stuck’ behind cyclists, and this can lead to conflict and potential for collision. It is an uncomfortable and off-putting experience for a cyclist to be pressured by fast vehicles in bus lanes bordered by a kerb on one side and stationary traffic on the other.

Please give serious consideration to reviewing the options you have presented, and how ‘option 4’ could be the best compromise.

Finally I would like to ask DRD to listen seriously to the concerns of cycling respondents. Belfast and Northern Ireland suffers from a lack of leadership on cycling issues, and very little information on this consultation has been highlighted by local cycling or sustainable transport organisations to the wider public. The survey you highlight in the consultation shows that cyclists, along with other bus lanes users (save for taxi drivers) clearly do not want to see bus lanes overrun by taxis. It is difficult to prioritise the needs of cyclists when there are no hard targets for uptake, but DRD must recognise the damage which could be inflicted on Belfast as a cycling city if this preference is allowed to proceed.

Northern Ireland Greenways

Roads Service are about to make Belfast roads significantly more dangerous for cyclists, and risk jeopardising  commuter cycling levels. A consultation on plans to open bus lanes to all taxis is closing shortly, but what is driving their preferred option?

Roads Service’s stated preference is to allow taxis to use bus lanes, despite presenting no evidence of an overall benefit, save to taxi firms and drivers. Meanwhile, practically the only form of city-bound cycling infrastructure in Belfast is about to get much busier, and more dangerous.

The taxi situation

Currently bus lanes are dedicated space for buses, cyclists, motorcyclists and public hire taxis (black hackney cabs and ‘taxi buses’). These taxis had a monopoly in Belfast on the ability to pick up passengers from the street. Private hire taxis were only available through prior booking, and had no access to bus lanes. Although the legislation is NI-wide, I’m focusing on Belfast, as the majority of NI’s bus lanes are on this city’s arterial routes.

From 1st September new taxi regulations came into force which effectively levelled the playing field in Northern Ireland – all taxis operate under one system, and any taxi can be hailed and pick up a fare from the roadside.

Now that the two-tier system is defunct, Roads Service are considering three options for future access to bus lanes:

  1. no access to taxis (not favoured – “removing a facility, that is currently operational without any apparent major impact, would be hard to defend”)
  2. access to wheelchair accessible taxis only (possibility – “This could be a viable option providing it does not present practical difficulties in terms of enforcement, and identifying accessible vehicles. Some potential users would view limiting access to accessible taxis only as being overly restrictive.)
  3. access to all taxis (preferred – “to preclude a section of taxis … would disadvantage both the taxi, as a business entity, and the intending passenger, who as a user may reasonably expect a taxi to stop when hailed.”)

In the absence of genuine opposition from cyclists and groups interested in sustainable travel, implementation of Option 3 will follow the consultation period.

Why does this matter to cyclists?

Belfast has very little dedicated cycling infrastructure, and commuter cyclists rely on the relative calm of bus lanes for a safer journey during rush hour. Numbers of cyclists appear to be on the increase, and although hard targets for uptake don’t exist in Northern Ireland, we have ‘aspirations’ to increase the number of journeys by bike.

But what stops more people from commuting by bike? Belfast City Council’s response to a recent consultation on the draft Northern Ireland Active Travel Strategy is instructive. A short council staff survey on attitudes to cycling (and walking) showed that “a lack of adequate infrastructure closely coupled to personal safety issues have been the primary barriers to the uptake of active travel in Belfast” and further pointed to the Department for Transport Local Transport Note 2/08 on Cycle Infrastructure Design which “recommends that traffic volumes and speeds should be reduced where possible to create safer conditions for cycling.”

Allowing access to competitive commercial operators will both increase the volume of traffic and add more fast vehicles to bus lanes. How does this encourage more people to cycle, when instances of pressure from slowed taxis and dangerous overtaking attempts will increase?

The published considerations for and against


  • “any increase in accessibility to bus lanes has the potential to impact on current usage”
  • A survey showed that on one route, public hire taxi levels were 3 per hour – adding the observed private hire taxis under the new proposed framework could see that figure jump to 20 per hour. This would represent a near doubling of combined bus and taxi traffic within this lane (but again the impact on bus efficiency is all that is of concern, not cyclists)
  • The impact will be lessened because taxis use lanes illegally now anyway (so that’s okay then)

A report commissioned from Amey in 2008 noted and recommended:

  • there should be no change to current arrangements under new licensing system i.e. only wheelchair accessible taxis be allowed in bus lanes
  • “bus lanes are currently underperforming against targets…additional vehicles in the bus lane … would probably contribute to further reduced bus journey speeds
  • “there was little evidence from other UK cities, of any movement to allow private hire vehicles into bus lanes during the hours of operation” (so Belfast is actually leading the way in suppressing sustainable transport!)
  • “there was little evidence that private hire vehicles play any role in delivering sustainable transport systems”
  • “of road user groups surveyed (motorcyclists; bus drivers; bus passengers; cyclists; car drivers; public hire taxi drivers; and, private hire taxi drivers) the only group that supported allowing private hire taxis into bus lanes was the private hire taxi drivers. The reasons given for opposing access being concerns over the impact on bus lane performance, sustainability, defeating the purpose of a bus lane and safety


  • “availability of bus lanes to all taxis would better serve the needs of all users with disabilities and not just those who use wheelchairs” (in this case, then why are blue badge holders prevented from driving private cars in operational bus lanes?)
  • “Taxi services provide an important element of the overall public transport service in the BMA”

The arguments put in favour of allowing taxis access to bus lanes reaches its nadir: “Currently these taxis will generally be moving and will only stop to set down a fare, it would be rare that they would stop to pick up. It is felt this situation may not change greatly with the change in the taxi licensing regime, regular intending passengers on the routes in question will in all probability have chosen to use the cheaper bus service. It is also felt that dropping off may be fairly rare given that the destination will generally be the city centre or somewhere else away from the bus lane.” So to summarise, taxis really really need access to bus lanes, even though we think there’ll be little business for them there.

Roads Service lays bare its complete lack of regard for cyclists – fast travelling taxis shouldn’t hamper buses too much. But where is the consideration that fast moving taxis and relatively slow cyclists, the group who we nominally want to grow, don’t mix well?

What is the best option for cyclists?

Option 1 would clearly be the best situation, if we value bus lanes as a way to encourage sustainable transport. Any slowing of bus journeys or increased conflict with vulnerable road users runs against all sense. Taxis are not a sustainable mode of transport and therefore should not enjoy a privileged position on the road.

Option 2 is effectively a continuation of the current situation. It won’t do much to improve bus journey times or cycling uptake, but is an acceptable compromise. But continuing a two-tier system risks disadvantaging taxi drivers who do not drive wheelchair accessible vehicles.

Option 3 should be rejected outright by Roads Service.

Why is Roads Service confusing the issue?

A simple and obvious option has not been included in the consultation. A less kind commentator might suggest deliberate obfuscation by Roads Service.

There is a fundamental difference between ‘right of access’ to enter a bus lane and ‘right of travel’ for the length of a bus lane. The preferred Option 3 gives taxis full right of travel, a clear advantage over private cars and commercial vehicles to skip past queues of traffic. Yet the only Roads Service arguments presented in favour of option 3 concern the right to access a bus lane to pick up or drop off passengers. These are wholly separate arguments.

The current legislation states “a person shall not…cause or permit any vehicle…to enter, proceed or wait in a bus lane”, apart from those permitted. The solution is to grant in legislation the right for taxis being hailed to enter a bus lane and temporarily stop to collect a passenger. However, the taxi must then exit the lane and continue its journey in the main traffic flow.

Under Roads Service’s preferred option, taxis will be routinely stopping in bus lanes for this purpose anyway, holding up other permitted traffic. It’s the general usage of the lane for travelling which brings taxis directly into conflict with cyclists, something the consultation document utterly fails to address. But this is not surprising given our record on cycling measures.

Giving taxis full right of travel in bus lanes harms the effectiveness of the scheduled public transport system, dissuades current and potential cyclists from using the lanes, and makes a mockery of Northern Ireland’s sustainable travel aspirations.

Northern Ireland blind spot on cycling gets worse

I have come to the conclusion that civil servants and politicians in Northern Ireland are trying everything in their power to drive cyclists off the road. Wasting money on unenforceable advisory cycle lanes is one thing, concentrating what budget is left on cycle boxes which cyclists can’t safely get to is another. But proactively creating conditions to scare potential cycle commuters to stay in their cars, while happily accepting slower bus journey times, and making the road conditions less pleasant and more dangerous for existing cyclists is moving things on to a new level of incompetence.

Buses and cyclists are an uneasy mix in Belfast, but the current situation seems to be just about acceptable to increasing numbers of commuter cyclists. We share the bus lanes with a few motorcyclists, and the occasional black cab. Northern Ireland has been crawling slowly towards a more sustainable transport system, despite best efforts to obstruct progress. Throwing hundreds of taxis into the rush hour mix is simply crazy, but an understandable product of our current road strategy and mismanagement.

What can be done?

The consultation is open until Friday 21st September 2012. It is imperative that the views of cyclists who use bus lanes are made clearly to Roads Service. Despite the clear preference, there remains the possibility to change minds. Give your response to the consultation here, and raise the issue with your local councillors and MLAs. Take action before it’s too late.