The taxi industry was deregulated in 1989. The government stopped restricting the numbers of taxis and their fares, but brought in new regulations for taxi drivers. These were seen as replacing ‘quantity’ standards with ‘quality’ standards. In 2009 the regulatory authority was the New Zealand Transport Agency.
Under the Transport Services Licensing Act 1989, drivers must:
- belong to an approved taxi organisation – anyone can set one up, but it has to be equipped with a 24-hour booking service and have a certain number of vehicles
- display prices on the door and inside, along with the driver’s photo ID and information on where to make complaints about service
- keep a logbook, and follow rules about how long they can drive at a stretch
- sit English-language and area-knowledge tests – though these can be set by their company
- be approved as a ‘fit and proper person’; this usually includes a police check, which can be difficult when drivers are from overseas.
‘Everyone knows that taxi drivers are the best source of gossip in this town,’1 said then Leader of the Opposition Helen Clark in 1998 when arguing that Parliament should retain its own fleet of drivers. Taxi drivers are believed to have a feel for public opinion, because they hear the views of people from all walks of life.
Impact of deregulation
Taxi numbers rose from 2,700 to 7,000 in the decade after deregulation. In Auckland they grew by about 15% a year. But customer numbers did not – partly because the importation of cheap second-hand cars from Japan had boosted private car ownership. As a result the taxi industry became very competitive, and in some provincial towns taxi numbers dwindled.
The new standards were found not to be strict enough, and there was concern over taxis’ high rate of non-compliance with both taxi and traffic rules. In 2000 the police commercial vehicle investigation unit found that the taxi industry had a 40% offence rate in terms of requirements such as logbooks and photo IDs, compared with 10% in the commercial vehicle industry overall. In 2006 a large Auckland taxi company had its licence revoked for breaches of the regulations.
Safety for women passengers was a concern, particularly after a number of assaults by drivers in the early 1990s. Violence against taxi drivers has also been a recurring problem. Many drivers have reported assaults, and in December 2008 Christchurch driver Abdulrahman Ikhtiari was stabbed to death.
Another common complaint is the poor English of some drivers. Over the years, many new migrants have worked as taxi drivers – for example, the New Zealand Ballet’s Danish founder Poul Gnatt, who drove a taxi at night while teaching ballet during the day in Auckland in the early 1950s. The same was true in the 2000s.
Taxis in the 2000s
In 2008 there were about 8,000 taxis in New Zealand. About half belonged to the New Zealand Taxi Federation, an industry body which was formed in 1935 by Harry Campbell, the long-time executive director of the New Zealand Road Transport Federation.
One driver expressed amazement at the technology used by taxis in the 2000s: ‘If you’d told me when I started 26 years ago that I would have GPS [a global positioning system] on a computer, would be tracked with satellite navigation by the computer in the office and would be taking money electronically in the cab, I wouldn’t have believed you. In those days it was RT [radio telephone], and jobs written down on bits of paper at the office. My car has become my entertainment centre, my living room. My next car will have satellite navigation and a DVD player. It’s more a lifestyle than a business.’2
The taxi industry was becoming increasingly sophisticated. For example, Wellington Combined Taxis installed a $1.6 million ‘smart technology’ computer dispatch system with satellite tracking of drivers in 2001. Aware of the issue of carbon emissions, some taxi firms are using hybrid cars and offering price incentives for customers from organisations that encourage their staff to share taxis – now termed ‘podding’.