“Why should an empty taxi, simply because they’ve a taxi plate, be allowed through a public transport corridor?” asks Independents 4 Change Councillor Pat Dunne. “I can’t think of a reason why.”
As Dunne sees it, there are too many unoccupied taxis travelling through the likes of College Green and clogging up the city’s bus lanes.
For him, the solution is removing taxis without fares from travelling through College Green and its immediate environs.
Others says that perhaps the changes should go even further, arguing that it’s time for taxis without passengers to stay out of bus lanes all over the city.
But for taxi driver Christy Humphrey, taxis are just an easy target. “Taxis are public transport,” he says. Inconvenience them and you inconvenience the public, he argues.
Since the Luas Cross City got going last month, there have been longer delays around the city’s core artery.
Although Dublin City Council has plans for a pedestrianised plaza at College Green, An Bord Pleanála cancelled an oral hearing about these plans earlier this month.
The oral hearing was set to move plans forward for the pedestrianisation of College Green and its proposed plaza. Following its cancellation, and with no set date as of yet for a future hearing, Dublin City Council’s Chief Executive said he had to do something.
At this month’s full council meeting, Keegan said that since mid-December there has been a “very significant reduction” in pedestrian priority at College Green.
This means longer waits for pedestrians at the area’s road crossings. That’s no good, he said. At last week’s meeting, councillors voted in favour of allowing Keegan to implement signal changes at College Green.
As Keegan and the council’s traffic-management team try to deal with the back-ups and congestion and restore pedestrian priority over the coming weeks, Independents 4 Change’s Dunne thinks it’s time to reexamine the allowances given to taxi drivers across the city.
“We’re trying to put through both buses and taxis around [College Green],” says Dunne. “I don’t have a problem with taxis using the corridor as public transport. But they should have a passenger on board.”
National Transport Authority rules state that taxis are not allowed use bus lanes if they’re driving home or transporting goods, according to Dermot O’Gara, a spokesperson for the NTA.
Taxis are also not allowed to use contra-flow bus lanes, lanes in which traffic flows in the opposite direction to adjoining lanes, he added.
A taxi, operating as a small public-service vehicle, is allowed use the bus lanes while carrying a passenger, or on the way to pick up a pre-booked fare, or if it’s “plying for hire” – in other words, driving along hoping to be flagged.
It’s that last one that Dunne thinks need to be looked at.
As he sees it, bus-lane congestion around Dublin could be eased by removing unoccupied taxis from the bus lanes around Westmoreland Street, Dame Street and Nassau Street. That would mean putting them into general traffic unless they had a passenger.
Or in the case of the College Green bus corridor – which loops around Trinity College and is only open to buses, taxis and cyclists from 7am to 7pm, Monday to Friday – preventing taxis without passengers from travelling through.
Others are in favour of an outright ban on taxis around College Green.
Labour councillor Andrew Montague says that at certain pinch points in the city, like College Green, he would be in favour of kicking out taxis altogether.
Public transport, such as Dublin Bus services and the Luas, has to take priority in the city centre, he says. “I think around College Green, they have to ban taxis even with passengers,” he says. “I think in this particular case taxi drivers are the ones that will have to go first.”
But in bus lanes elsewhere in the city? “I don’t think that’s viable,” he says. “You want taxis to be able to get around the city centre efficiently.”
In the Meanwhile
The NTA is responsible for issuing taxi licenses, but it’s up to An Garda Síochána to enforce the rules.
The Garda Press Office could not provide figures for fines issued in Dublin in 2017 to taxi drivers who were misusing bus lanes.
Fine Gael Councillor Paddy Smyth says that these rules are difficult to police. But banning taxis without passengers from using bus lanes makes sense, he says.
“I’ve been on buses that have been delayed by the fact that there’s four or five taxis in front of them,” he says. “And certainly as a cyclist you see a lot of taxis in bus lanes without any passengers in them.”
Priority has to be given to the larger public-transport modes like Dublin Bus, to ensure an efficient service, says Smyth.
If the city pulls unoccupied taxis out of bus lanes and mixes them in with general traffic, there might be serious delays at first, says Smyth.
But he says that he thinks the long-term benefits for public transport are worth it. “Removing the unoccupied taxis is a reasonable first measure,” says Smyth.
It’s hard to say how traffic flows might be affected by such a move. The NTA has not examined the issue in any detail, said O’Gara.
As of 31 December 2017, there were 9,369 taxis licensed in Dublin, according to NTA figures. That accounts for 60 percent of taxis nationwide.
At midday on Monday at College Green, five taxis were backed up behind a Number 4 bus near Trinity College. Two of these taxis carried passengers.
Thirty seconds later, another two taxis drove past without passengers.
Any attempt to remove unoccupied taxis from using bus lanes will ultimately affect the consumer, says taxi driver Humphrey, who is head of the National Private Hire and Taxi Association (NPHTA).
“If a passenger is at a bus stop and trying to hail a taxi in the lashings of rain or trying to get to a hospital appointment … you’re prohibiting the person,” he says. “That’d be an inconvenience.”
Fianna Fáil Councillor Tom Brabazon agrees. If taxi drivers have to make circuitous routes around College Green or move into general traffic because they’re not allowed use bus lanes, it’s going to make their jobs harder, he says.
That, in turn, will inconvenience potential passengers. “Taxi drivers are just trying to make a livelihood,” says Brabazon.
Longer Trams, Longer Jams?
There’s the congestion and back-ups around College Green to tackle first, though. The solution could involve an outright ban on taxis from the area.
Anything less – like only allowing occupied taxis through, as Dunne suggests – might not satisfy the council and the NTA’s engineers, says Fine Gael’s Smyth.
“I’d agree with that as an interim measure around College Green to see if it alleviates the issues,” he says. “But even if we do that it may not satisfy the engineers. I would go further in that I would happily see the bus lanes everywhere only being used by taxis if they’ve a passenger.”
According to O’Gara, the spokesperson for the NTA, the authority is currently examining options for College Green for when new Luas trams, 55 metres in length, come into effect by March. Current trams are 43 metres long.
“Those solutions could include adjusting traffic signalling and sequencing, adjusting bus prioritisation measures, rerouting some traffic,” said O’Gara.
Taxi union representatives are due to meet the council’s chief executive, Owen Keegan, later this week. Says the NPHTA’s Humphrey: “We will be telling Owen Keegan that the status quo should be left.”