Despite warnings from cycle groups that a ‘three-fold’ increase in the use of bus lanes could endanger the lives of cyclists, cabinet member for transport Lynne Stagg backed the move on Monday.
However, she said the council would be ‘reactive to evidence’ during the trial, which is set to start in March and run for a minimum of three months.
‘I have concerns, I’ll be the first to admit,’ Cllr Stagg said at her decision-making meeting on Monday. ‘For a start, bus lanes are meant to be for buses and we want to encourage more people to use buses. But as long as it doesn’t slow them down then that’s reasonably okay.’
She said any future decision on making the temporary permission permanent was ‘entirely up to the drivers’.
‘The onus is on private hire drivers,’ she said. ‘If safety is compromised, if casualties increase, if there are more complaints then that’s it – the trial fails.’
Just under 1,000 private hire vehicles are registered in the city compared to the 214 Hackney cabs licensed through the council that can already use bus lanes.
Previous attempts were made in 2011 and 2015 to allow them access but these were abandoned due to opposition from Hampshire Police, bus operators and cyclists.
But a council report said a ‘closely-monitored’ trial would be acceptable.
Only two community groups submitted objections to the trial, both on the grounds it would make travelling more dangerous for cyclists.
Portsmouth Cycle Forum, which said it would not attribute its statement to any single member following threats of violence received when it opposed the 2015 proposal, called on the council to scrap the trial.
‘It is very hard to understand why the council wants to progress this proposal, other than the suggestion it is to placate drivers who are now hit by Clean Air Zone charges,’ it said.
‘We agree that private hire vehicles can provide a service to replace private cabs out of hours or when bus services are less frequent but at these times there is no congestion and so don’t need to use bus lanes.
‘Any trial will be an experiment with live human subjects in the form of cyclists and taxi drivers. It is quite possible in this context one of those subjects could be seriously injured or killed.’
Similar concerns were raised by Walk Ride Waterlooville.
The use of bus lanes by private hire vehicles is allowed in a number of other towns and cities across the UK, including Southampton.
The trial has been welcomed by councillor Scott Payter-Harris, who has long called for it, but he said a period of more than three months would be more effective.
‘This is a good move forward for the private hire trade,’ he said. ‘It’s something they’ve been pushing for for a long time.
‘I do think for a more complete dataset we realistically need to be looking at a minimum of six months so you can see drivers’ patterns and behaviours.’
Work to set up the trial and monitor its progress will be overseen by a new working group made up of bus, taxi, council and cycling representatives.