The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) have confirmed that the “temporary change” to allow all taxis access to bus lanes will definitely not default to a permanent change – the “trial” will end with Class A taxis once more excluded from bus lanes after 14th May 2017.
The taxis in bus lanes trial was announced on Thursday 16th February 2017 with a shock four day lead-in to commencement on the following Monday. Active travel group Sustrans, which wasn’t notified or consulted beforehand, expressed fears that the trial would simply be the thin end of the wedge:
“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.”
Sustrans NI 16 Feb 2017
With an election looming this week the Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard vacates his post at midnight on Thursday 2nd March. With no guarantee of his successor being in post within the next 12 weeks, it was feared a ‘drift’ to a permanent arrangement might not even require a proactive ‘political’ decision.
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) February 16, 2017
Following a series of questions from Bikefast which went unanswered, DfI arranged a meeting with Sustrans and Bikefast representatives last Friday and released a statement to attempt to clarify the position. DfI has now confirmed that ‘trial means trial’ and Class A taxis will again be restricted from using bus lanes when the trial finishes:
“The trial will end on 14 May 2017 and will not require a Ministerial decision to end it. As with any trial it can be ended at any time, should the need arise.”
DfI statement 24 Feb 2017
The haste of the decision to initiate a trial, never mind still unanswered questions about announcing such a major change during the pre-election “purdah” period, was criticised by many including Sustrans:
“This decision has been made at very short notice, without a period of consultation or indeed reasonable advanced notice to all those who currently use bus lanes. Decisions, such as this, made in haste often fail to properly consider all the consequences and create more problems than they solve.”
Sustrans NI 16 Feb 2017
DfI concede in their statement that the rush to start a trial in this way was problematic:
“We recognise that on this occasion we did not explain in advance our plan to initiate a trial and this understandably caused adverse comment. It is something we will learn from for the future. The Department is committed to seeking the views of stakeholders during the trial and will be writing to relevant stakeholders and representative road user groups including Belfast City Council.”
DfI statement 24 Feb 2017
Jobs, data or balancing needs?
One point that caused confusion was the genesis of the decision to begin this trial in the teeth of an election. While the decision to launch a trial was at the behest of the Minister, there are now several explanations of its purpose in the public domain, which may or may not conflict.
Broadly these can be categorised as:
- a purely data gathering exercise ahead of Bus Rapid Transit launch
- “balance and respect the needs of all road users”
- safeguarding employment in the private taxi industry
The first is somewhat understandable – although the need for a real-world experiment is dubious at best, given a long list of desk-based research conducted by DfI (and its predecesssor DRD) which points to a decrease in bus journey reliability and speed if all taxis could use bus lanes. Desk-based research looking at Dublin would also be a possibility.
The second is the Departmental ‘line’ as first used in the press release to announce the trial. The choice of language is interesting, as it could reasonably be inferred that DfI sees the “needs” of some currently excluded road users as requiring access to bus lanes – very different from a purely data gathering exercise to set objective transport policy once Bus Rapid Transit launches in September 2018.
The third only raised its head in public on the day the trial began. A key argument of the private taxi lobby has been that bus lane access should be a level playing field – all taxis in or all out – and that the economic disadvantage to the private taxi industry is a threat to jobs. Critically, no evidence seems to have been made public to substantiate this claim, or to allow anyone to verify or challenge it.
The plot has now thickened on this third point.
West Belfast MP Paul Maskey was quoted by 4NI.co.uk on the day the trial was announced as having raised the economic and employment concerns of taxi drivers:
“They have been finding it increasingly difficult to earn a sufficient wage, particularly those drivers who work during mornings and early evenings.
“I made representations to the Minister asking him to consider the concerns of taxi drivers with a view to a trial allowing taxis into bus lanes and which would assess the impact of those taxis on the operation of the bus lanes.”
On the same day Bikefast specifically asked DfI about this issue:
“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?”
Bikefast 16 Feb 2017
DfI’s statement, over a week later, is crystal clear in response:
“The Minister has no statutory role in respect of employment in the taxi industry and this did not form part of the decision-making process.”
DfI statement 24 Feb 2017
Bikefast will urgently follow up on what appears to be a glaring contradiction.
DfI’s full statement (from officials running the trial) does not tackle all of Bikefast’s questions, some of which stray into areas which are best handled by the Private Office or Press Office.
Newton Emerson, whose opinion piece in the Irish News is required reading (possible paywall), has begun to explore those areas:
“The sudden move to let taxis use Belfast’s bus lanes does not stack up. The design of the trial is bizarre.”
Newton Emerson, Irish News 23 Feb 2017
Full statement from the Department for Infrastructure
“The recently announced bus lane trial will allow Class A taxis to use the bus lanes on the East and West Belfast Rapid Transit routes and the 12 hour (7am – 7pm) bus lanes in the city centre which link the two routes. This is in addition to the Class B and D taxis that are already permitted access. Class C taxis are not permitted access during the trial.
“The trial began on Monday 20 February 2017 and will last 12 weeks ending on Sunday 14 May 2017.
“In choosing to proceed with a trial, the Department is seeking further information that will assist in the decision making process and help to ensure that the final policy balances the needs of all public transport users. It is worth noting that the scenario that is being tested was subject of a full public consultation exercise in 2012. The consultation exercise proved emotive and drew a mixed response from the different groups of road users – hence the decision to hold a trial.
“During the trial the Department will assess the performance of the bus lanes in question and in particular whether the temporary change in access arrangements is impacting on bus journeys. The Department will measure bus journey times, and undertake a number of classified vehicle counts on a regular basis, to ascertain the composition of the traffic flow using the routes during the trial. Wherever possible this data will be compared with that previously recorded during earlier studies. This will also assist in assessing any change in cycling numbers as a result of the trial.
“The Department will also monitor collision histories on the routes in question. As indicated in the 2012 Consultation Document, the evidence would suggest that the respective bus lane users generally interact safely. What few collisions that had been recorded at that point had been between vehicles in the bus lane and other vehicles making manoeuvres across the lane.
“You ask specifically a number of points about taxis. The Minister has no statutory role in respect of employment in the taxi industry and this did not form part of the decision-making process.
“The Department is committed to seeking the views of stakeholders during the trial and will be writing to relevant stakeholders and representative road user groups including Belfast City Council. The Department is also keen to take account of information collected by users of the bus lanes and would encourage you to provide any material that you are aware of.
“As stated previously the trial will end on 14 May 2017 and will not require a Ministerial decision to end it. As with any trial it can be ended at any time, should the need arise.
“Enforcement of bus lanes that are not included in this trial will continue as normal throughout the trial period.
“We recognise that on this occasion we did not explain in advance our plan to initiate a trial and this understandably caused adverse comment. It is something we will learn from for the future.”
DfI statement 24 Feb 2017
— NI Greenways (@nigreenways) February 21, 2017
The exact nature of the trial is still not clear from the statement. The baselines, measurement criteria, success or failure indicators have not been shared. The intensity of the first-person monitoring is not clear – will officials be on-site every day, once a week, or once? What are they actually observing? Will counters be used? If officials can gather enough information over 12 weeks instead of the initially planned six months, would a two week trial accomplish the same thing?
This information, and the exact purpose of the trial as initially conceived – now thrown into serious doubt – will be aggressively pursued by Bikefast.
Class A taxis will definitely be out of bus lanes on Monday 15th May – the Department has made that clear and a return to the status quo will be a relief to many people who cycle in Belfast who use bus lanes as “safe havens” in the absence of a dedicated cycling network.
In the meantime, as DfI’s statement makes clear, any and all incidents which bicycle users of the bus lanes face during the trial must be shared with the Department.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.