The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has declined to respond to a series of questions about the shock announcement of a trial of taxis in bus lanes. DfI’s response to queries, provoked by public anger and fear, means that the trial will begin with no public information on benchmarks, monitoring, judging criteria or safety checks.
On Thursday DfI announced a “Bus lane trial for taxis” with just four days of notice. All taxis (barring Class C) will be permitted to use operational bus lanes in the city centre and on the two future Bus Rapid Transit Routes from Monday 20th February 2017. It is being pitched as a “trial” which will last for 12 weeks. The vast majority of bus lanes in Northern Ireland are situated in the Greater Belfast area.
— Newton Emerson (@NewtonEmerson) February 17, 2017
Bikefast understands the trial was slated to last for six months, until a last-minute intervention by Sustrans and Northern Ireland Greenways.
Setback for cycling
Bikefast was created in response to the threat to cycling of this policy four years ago, and was among many who were shocked by the timing, speed and lack of consultation.
Sustrans released a statement which perfectly encapsulates the frustration created by this “setback for cycling in the city”:
“The last time this issue was consulted on by the Department in 2012, the overwhelming majority of respondents (86%) were opposed to taxis being permitted into bus lanes. Therefore we are unsure what this decision is based on and how it aims to ‘balance and respect the needs of all road users’. On the contrary we believe this is a premature decision as there is currently limited alternatives for cyclists given the lack of a segregated bike network in the city.
“In the absence of segregated cycle lanes, bus and cycle lanes (their official title) have become safe havens for cyclists offering the best access in and out of the city. Our concern is that cyclists who currently rely on bus lanes will give up due to safety fears.
“We are concerned that this ‘trial’ will be repeating the mistake made in Dublin where taxis were allowed into bus lanes for a temporary period in 1997 which then drifted into a permanent arrangement. Taxis in bus lanes are today considered the biggest problem for cycling safety in Dublin. The Road Safety Authority in the Republic of Ireland carries out an annual Free Speed Survey which secretly measures vehicle category speeds. Taxis are always the major breacher of the speed limit in urban areas.
“Only when there is an alternative, comprehensive segregated network of cycle lanes in place in the city should consideration be given to allowing taxis in bus lanes.“
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) February 17, 2017
“The Department will assess the impact of the taxis on the operation of the bus lanes during the trial period. This will include the safety of bus lane users, as well as the impact on journey times, vehicle speeds and volumes. The Department will also invite stakeholders to provide their views before reaching a decision on the long term access arrangements for taxis in bus lanes.”
Bikefast immediately sent several questions to the DfI press office for urgent response:
- On which exact date will the trial end?
- Will Class A taxis be excluded from bus lanes again on this date, pending analysis of the trial and stakeholder engagement?
- Will enforcement of bus lanes be re-targeted to non-trial bus lanes to ensure taxi compliance with existing rules during the 12 week experiment?
- Which groups and organisations have been directly consulted on this trial?
- Was the Committee for Infrastructure briefed and advised of the trial before the Assembly shut down?
- Have the Belfast City Council and its officers responsible for the Belfast Bikes scheme been consulted ahead of this trial?
- What are the criteria which the experiment is running under? I would appreciate a copy by return.
- How will the effect on cycling levels, bus journey times and cyclists’ perception of safety be monitored during the 12 weeks?
- Specifically with regard to cycling, will close passes and intimidating behaviour towards cyclists be monitored and how?
- Is there a ‘safety catch’ to stop the trial, for example if a collision between a taxi and a cyclist leads to a serious/fatal injury?
- Will the impact upon West Belfast taxi bus patronage and journey times be assessed and how?
- Will there be daily monitoring?
- Will this be done in-house or contracted out?
- Are Uber taxis permitted to use the specified bus lanes during this trial?
No acknowledgement of the questions was forthcoming ahead of the 4pm deadline on Thursday 16th February. Several follow-up calls to the press office on Friday 17th promised action from “officials” within TransportNI, the executive arm of DfI.
In an exquisitely timed brush-off email – one minute after the Press Office closed for the weekend – the matter was sealed:
“I wish to advise that the Press Office have passed a number questions you have in respect of taxis in bus lanes to TransportNI for response. TransportNI are dealing with a number of issues at present, and hope to reply to your questions next week.”
5.01pm Friday 17th February 2017
The DfI press office and TransportNI had almost two full working days to respond.
— Angela Wallace (@AngelaJWallace) February 18, 2017
This means that the trial will commence on Monday morning with no information available on the parameters. What would success or failure look like? What will stop the Department simply announcing a successful trial and making the arrangement permanent? How can the Department measure the effect on a Bus Rapid Transit system which won’t actually begin to operate until September 2018?
If there is a fully detailed plan for the trial, a response to almost all of the questions should have been simple. By not responding ahead of the trial, it raises further questions which we will put to the DfI press office:
- Was there actually a fully designed plan in place before the trial went operational?
- Was this trial a purely political decision which officials have had to design on the fly?
- Has a risk assessment on cycling safety been carried out?
- Why was a major change to Belfast’s transport system announced during purdah?
- Will a Ministerial decision be required to remove taxis at the end of the 12 weeks, and what happens if a new Executive has not formed by then?
- Has an economic case for jobs within the taxi industry been made to the Department? Has it been accepted? Has it been made available to stakeholders for critical analysis?
- Does the Minister for Infrastructure have a statutory responsibility to monitor or protect employment levels in private taxi companies?
The move also blows the recently published Draft Belfast Bicycle Network Plan out of the water. DfI’s vision for city cycling included bus lanes in the city centre and some other areas.
“Bus and cycle lane: a shared on-road facility designated only for bus, bicycle and other limited vehicles (may be appropriate in circumstances such as the city centre, where the volume and speed of buses is relatively low and there is sufficient width to accommodate a wide 4.5m lane).
“We believe that separate cycling provision is the best solution and will strive to provide this where possible, but we recognise that bus and cycle lanes may be an interim solution.”
By introducing a competitive and impatient transport sector into the bus lanes, this is no longer a defensible position. Dedicated space for cycling has now been made a fundamental requirement throughout the city centre.
In a remarkable intervention in the Belfast Telegraph over the bus lane trial, fonaCAB boss William McCausland attacked cyclists’ “antagonistic attitude” and “aggression”, which was a worrying reference to those who “ride slowly and in the middle of the bus lane”.
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) February 18, 2017
Taxi drivers should refer to their Highway Code before imagining that the person riding a bicycle in front of them holding primary position in a bus lane is being aggressive – they’re correctly insuring against an unsafe interaction.
People are worried and fearful for their safety. By refusing to answer simple questions within the only available time before the taxis in bus lanes trial begins, the Department have shown a lack of good judgement. Whether there’s a lack of competence, planning, risk assessment and safeguards are now legitimate questions as a result.
The whole business stinks. A professional journalist could be having a field day with this.
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