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Taxis and cabs

by Jane Tolerton

From horse-drawn hansom cabs to the taxis of the 2000s with their GPS receivers and satellite tracking, taxis and cabs have long been a feature of New Zealand’s cities. Many new immigrants have made a living driving taxis.

Horse-drawn hansom cabs

Horse-drawn hansom cabs, which were operating in New Zealand by 1860, were the taxis of New Zealand cities in the late 19th century.

Drawn by a single horse, they carried two passengers; larger groups hired a two-horse hackney carriage. The driver sat on a high seat behind the cab and was given directions through a trapdoor in the roof.

Joseph Hansom had patented the hansom cab in England in 1834. He based his design on the open cabriolet (a two-wheeled carriage pulled by one horse, from which the word ‘cab’ comes), adding an enclosed carriage. The hansom cab was a light, fast, easily manoeuvred vehicle which became the standard for street hire.

Careering cabbies

A writer in the New Zealand Herald in 1886 took cab drivers to task for their recklessness: ‘Some steps should be taken to prevent furious driving in Queen Street on Saturday nights when the streets are crowded with people … it is no uncommon thing to see a cabman careering along – driving through long lanes of people at six or seven miles an hour, the only warning being the occasional crack of his whip …[T]his reckless conduct is most conspicuous and gives the impression that such rapid driving is done out of bravado and pure cussedness rather than anything else.’1

Cab driver licences

Local authorities licensed cab drivers, and often set fares as well. There was concern that drivers be of ‘good character’ – but they were sometimes accused of being involved in the sex industry. In 1898 the Auckland police inspector told the city council theirs was ‘the only town in the colony where men of notoriously bad character’ could get cab licences and act as touts for prostitutes, or use their vehicles as ‘wheeled brothels’.2

Cabmen were also criticised for ‘furious driving’. Some were prosecuted for being drunk in charge of their horse and hansom, and leaving them unattended in the street or parked in places other than cab stands.

Hansom cab hit

The mystery of a hansom cab, a crime novel by New Zealander Fergus Hume, became an international best-seller in the 1880s. Hume initially published his book himself, because every publisher he approached ‘refused to even look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial would write anything worth reading’.3 The novel – set in Melbourne – went on to sell about a million copies. Hume, a barrister, moved to England and continued to write detective stories, but never had another hit.

Driving conditions

A driver’s life wasn’t easy. Exposed to the elements, they had to drive on unsealed roads which were often muddy and always manure-strewn. Seated in their precariously high position, they could see only their horse’s head. In an accident, they had a long way to fall or could be flung over the cab.

Accidents were common, particularly after the introduction of new forms of transport that literally scared the horses on city streets. These included steam and horse trams in the 19th century, and later, electric trams, cars and buses.

There were still a few hansom cabs available for hire in the 1920s.

  1. New Zealand Herald, 15 November 1886, p. 28. Back
  2. Evening Post, 18 November 1898, p. 6. Back
  3. Quoted in Joanne Drayton, Ngaio Marsh: her life in crime. Auckland: HarperCollins, 2008, p. 18. Back


Motorised taxis appeared in New Zealand towns from about 1905, and were common by 1912. Taxi stands developed in the streets, and there were special telephones on poles for summoning taxis. As with hansom cabs, they were regulated by local authorities.

T for taxi

Because people often hailed private cars thinking they were taxis, Auckland City Council decided in 1915 to mark taxis by putting the letter ‘T’ in red on their number plates, in front of the black registered number that all cars had.

Taxi drivers’ wages were set by the Arbitration Court from 1926. But their earnings fell dramatically during the economic depression of the 1930s, partly because drivers signed private ‘hirer agreements’ designed by taxi owners to undercut the pay rates and conditions set by the court.

A 1936 commission of inquiry found ‘cut-throat competition’ had lowered fares as well as wages. It commented that ‘[a]n orgy of fare-cutting, unfair practices, tampering with vehicles, fake telephone calls, touting, misleading advertising and practices of a more sinister nature are indulged in with the result that ... chaos was generally rampant from one end of New Zealand to the other’.1 The government moved to limit the number of taxis.

Prospective drivers had to prove that there was a demand for their service and that it would not adversely affect existing drivers – who had a right to object, and invariably did. Licences were effectively bought and sold, with substantial goodwill payments by those who wanted to get into the industry.

Wartime taxi use

The Second World War boosted taxi use as petrol rationing put private vehicles off the road and overcrowded trams and buses. American servicemen, prepared to pay for long trips back to base, were good customers. Drivers were in demand, as many were away at the war. After the war, returned servicemen were given priority in the line-up for taxi licences.

Women worked as taxi drivers during the war, but later many companies refused to employ women. They were forbidden to drive at night by regulation, until the mid-1970s.

The name game

In the days of radio telephones taxi drivers were renowned for slangy place-names. To Wellington drivers Oriental Bay was China Bay; Hopper St was Kangaroo Alley; and the Wallace Street entrance of Wellington Polytechnic was Polly Wally.

1950s and 1960s

In the early 1950s, two-way radio allowed companies to contact their drivers while out on the road, increasing the number of jobs to which they had access.

Widespread public dissatisfaction with the quality of New Zealand’s taxi service sparked another commission of inquiry in 1961. The previous year the Commissioner of Transport had called the taxi industry ‘a discourteous and often unreliable service’.2 Under the Transport Act 1962 the government took control of both licensing and fare-setting. Drivers had to belong to an approved taxi organisation.

The continuing tight control on taxi numbers meant there were not enough taxis in peak times, when people often had to queue for cabs and share rides – but there was often not enough work for drivers at off-peak times.

Share and share alike

Before the taxi industry was deregulated in 1989, it was common to share taxis at peak times because there weren’t enough available. ‘If a driver got a fare to a certain place, he’d ask if they minded sharing, and then ask if there was anyone else going there. You’d give them both a discount,’3 says George Tyler, who managed a Wellington taxi firm in the 1950s and 1960s.

George Tyler, who was manager of Wellington’s Black, White and Grey Taxis in the 1950s and 1960s, and later headed the Taxi Federation, remembers: ‘When the pubs closed at six o’clock there was a massive rush. There might be a hundred people waiting for a taxi on Dixon Street. But at half-past six the town was dead. People would come out later to go to the pictures and go home again. From Friday night through to the early hours of Sunday you might hardly go to bed because the work was there.’4

The extension of bar closing times – to 10 o’clock in 1967, and later still in 1989 – increased the use of taxis at night. Drink-driving laws and random breath tests added an incentive to take a taxi. Increasing air travel meant more daytime work for taxi drivers in centres with airports.

  1. Report of the commission of inquiry into taxi and town carrier businesses, p. 2. Back
  2. New Zealand Herald, 20 January 1961. Back
  3. Interview with George Tyler, June 2008. Back
  4. Interview with George Tyler, June 2008. Back

Taxi industry deregulation

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.

Great gossips?

‘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.

Modern technology

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’.

  1. ‘Taxi drivers reject Clark’s comments’, Dominion, 1 December 1998. Back
  2. Interview with Dean Davern, Wellington Combined Taxis, July 2008. Back

How to cite this page: Jane Tolerton, 'Taxis and cabs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 September 2021)

Story by Jane Tolerton, published 11 Mar 2010