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Private hire operator with nearly 4,000 vehicles in the capital takes the law into its own hands

In a move that could present an additional danger to cyclists in London, private hire car firm Addison Lee has told its staff to break the law by driving in the capital’s bus lanes, with its chairman claiming that allowing only licensed black cabs to use them constitutes “unfair discrimination.” The news, revealed yesterday by cycle trade website Bike Biz, has provoked a strong response from Transport for London, which has said that if the company does not change its stance, its licence to operate could be withdrawn.

Only licensed taxis, besides buses, cyclists and, since January this year, motorcyclists, are permitted to use London’s network of bus lanes. However, Addison Lee’s founder and chairman, John Griffin, has written to its 3,500 self-employed minicab drivers telling them to use bus lanes and adding that it will indemnify them for any fines they may incur as a result – potentially, £1,000 per incident.

BikeBiz’s story yesterday was published as news of that letter, which some Addison Lee drivers reportedly received on Saturday, spread through the capital’s black cab driving community. London cyclists have also been less than enthused at the prospect of sharing bus lanes with Addison Lee's drivers.

Drivers of those iconic vehicles, unlike those working for Addison Lee, are allowed to ply for hire on the streets and at cab ranks and of course to earn their badge have to pass the infamous Knowledge.

Addison Lee’s fleet of vehicles, which display TfL Private Hire badges, are as far removed as can be from the stereotypical image of those used by minicab firms operating from a hut next to a railway station. According to its website, it currently has 3,500 black-liveried Ford Galaxy people carriers, plus 350 Mercedes Saloon VIP cars, and is said to be Europe’s largest cab fleet operator. It claims to carry 10 million passengers a year.

What seems to lie at the heart of Addison Lee’s action is the perceived competitive disadvantage that it claims it suffers from compared to licensed taxi operators.

In a statement published on its website today, it says that it has secured a judicial review of restrictions on bus lanes, and points out that it successfully lobbied for the removal of the M4 bus lane, which was scrapped by then Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond, in 2010. The bus lane had been introduced by one of his predecessors, John Prescott, in 1999 under the Labour Government.

Within days of the announcement that the M4 bus lane was to be removed, the Crown Prosecution Service informed Addison Lee that it was dropping proceedings in connection with 216 fines issued to its drivers as well as 130 court summonses, saying that "it was no longer in the public interest to proceed."

Again in that case, Mr Griffin had instructed his drivers to use the bus lane; it was scrapped after the Coalition Government came to power in 2010; according to the Financial Times, in 2009/10 Mr Griffin confirmed that via Addison Lee he had donated £100,000 to the Conservative Party, the newspaper quoting him as saying he believed a Conservative Government would be "positive for business."

Referring to his latest instructions to drivers in London, Mr Griffin said: “The current Bus Lane legislation is anticompetitive and unfairly discriminates against the millions of passengers that use Addison Lee.

“Minicabs perform the same function as Black Taxis and are licensed by the same authority, so there is no reason that they should be penalised due to outdated legislation.”

He added: “Black Taxis are not a public service, they are a business just like minicabs – and we will fight the injustice in the current legal system that subsidises them as if they provided a public service.

“The Black Taxi produces 1.5 times the amount of CO2 and 44 times more PM10 toxins than our minicabs, contributing more than a third of all particulate pollution in London.

“They are more expensive and they often refuse to pick people up or go south of the river. Why on earth does our legal system treat them as any different to other private transport providers?”

For now, the company says it has told its drivers to use bus lanes throughout London pending the outcome of the judicial review, although that does perhaps raise the question of how the judge presiding over proceedings might view such unilateral action taken before he or she has had an opportunity to rule on the legislation in question.

TfL published its own response to the breaking story on its website yesterday evening, saying it was “urgently considering legal and regulatory action against Addison Lee.”

Director of Surface Transport Leon Daniels commented: "The letter from the management of Addison Lee is utterly irresponsible. By issuing it, Addison Lee risk regulatory action against themselves and leave their staff liable to criminal prosecution. We have asked Addison Lee to withdraw their letter immediately. We are also writing to all Addison Lee drivers reminding them that repeated breaches of traffic regulations could see their licence to operate withdrawn.

"London's bus lanes are in place to ensure the efficient operation of the bus network, which carries more than six million passengers a day. Allowing tens of thousands of Private Hire Vehicles to drive in bus lanes would seriously disrupt the bus network and our passengers' ability to get around the capital."

What TfL’s statement does not address is the issue of the safety of cyclists, who are entitled to use bus lanes. Addison Lee drivers are regularly mentioned on London-related cycling forums in connection with incidents involving cyclists, and the possibility of them using bus lanes, whether illegally or in the  longer term lawfully should the judicial review go the company’s way, and has already been condemned by many of the capital’s cyclists campaigners on social media channels such as Twitter.

As BikeBiz points out, some licensed taxi drivers who also happen to cycle have already said that the presence of Addison Lee vehicles in bus lanes will present an increased risk to cyclists.
 

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.