BikeBiz.com has discovered that private hire company Addison Lee of London is advising all of its drivers to start using bus lanes from tomorrow. [UPDATE: TfL have issued a statement condemning Addison Lee, see below for the rest of this rapidly evolving story]. Currently only black cabs are allowed to drive in bus lanes.
Addison Lee chairman John Griffin sent a letter to drivers which arrived on Saturday.
Griffin wrote: "Our legal advice is that bus lane regulations are currently being misinterpreted to exclude [private hire vehicles] from bus lanes. Such misinterpretation is unlawful."
Addison Lee operates a fleet of 3500 upscale minicabs and 300 VIP cars. Its drivers are all self-employed. The cars are owned by a sister company of Addison Lee. The Addison Lee fleet makes 25,000 journeys in London every day.
The letter from Griffin is currently going viral among drivers of London's iconic black cabs. On Twitter, some cabbies said they believed the letter might be a forgery. However, BikeBiz.com contacted Addison Lee and can confirm the letter is genuine.
Griffin said his company had been granted a judicial review on the use of minicabs in bus lanes and this could take some months to work its way through the legal system.
"In the meantime Addison Lee believes that we cannot allow our customers to continue to be victims of this unfair and discriminatory treatment," wrote Griffin, who founded the company, with one car, in 1975.
He told the company's drivers: "As Chairman I can advise you that a lawful interpretation of the bus lane regulation entitles Addison Lee drivers with Private Hire identifiers to use all bus lanes in the same way as our competitors. Accordingly you are fully entitled to use the bus lanes. The only exception would be those in the City of London which prohibit any taxi from using the bus lanes."
He added: "We can confirm that entry into the bus lanes is not an endorsable offence and that we will indemnify all Addison Lee drivers from any fines or other liabilities that may result from using the bus lanes as a result of this advice."
Drivers of black cabs believe there could be increased friction on the streets of London because of the stance of the Addison Lee chairman. Those cabbies who are also cyclists - and BikeBiz.com knows of quite a few - have said the extra number of motorised vehicles in bus lanes will pose an additional risk to cyclists.
In 2010 Griffin donated £50,000 to the Tory party. According to one interview, Griffin is not car-mad: he has an Oyster card and a Boris bike key.
Motorcycles have been allowed to use London's bus lanes since January.
There are around 24,000 licenced taxis in London and over 60,000 licenced minicabs.
In 2010, Griffin told Addison Lee drivers to use the M4 motorway bus lane, risking fines. Many did so but their fines were quashed shortly before the then transport secretary changed the bus lane back into a standard traffic lane.
UPDATE: since posting this story, earlier on Sunday, Transport for London has been quick to issue a statement condemning the Addison Lee letter.
TfL said private hire vehicle drivers could be liable to personal criminal prosecution if they drive in bus lanes.
"Police resources will be on street tomorrow morning [ie Monday] to ensure bus lanes are only used by those vehicles permitted to do so," said TfL.
TfL warns Addison Lee drivers they may be personally liable to prosecution, irrespective of any indemnity that Addison Lee claims to offer in its letter above.
Leon Daniels, Managing Director of Surface Transport, said: "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."