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.