Drivers aren’t safe at night, so queues – and risks – are increasing nationwide
Late at night, when the pub windows have gone dark and the doors are locked, Michael O’Donovan starts to make his way home.
As the publican drives from the Castle Inn in the heart of Cork, toward his house way beyond the southside of the city, the road is dotted with silhouettes of people walking home.
The current taxi crisis in Cork, and across the rest of the country, means people are risking walking to the city limits and the suburbs in the early hours of the morning in the hope of hailing a taxi far from the busy city centre streets.
“We’re lucky we haven’t had an accident yet,” Mr O’Donovan says. “It really has got so much worse since the end of lockdown, and I suppose the knock-on effect is that the late-night economy is suffering. There’s sufficient taxis to drop people into town, but when people want to go home late at night, that’s where there’s an issue.”
Mr O’Donovan says some people aren’t bothering to stay out late in pubs like his any more on Friday and Saturday nights.
“They have a bad experience where they can’t get a taxi or they need to walk home, so the next time they’re making sure they’re gone home early,” he says.
On this bank holiday weekend, just like others, people on nights out in towns and cities across Ireland will be left stranded with no way home.
The lack of late-night taxis has prompted fears about public safety, particularly for young women who may either risk walking home or be left alone in a city late at night. The reasons for the current shortage are complicated and the possible solutions even more so.
At the moment, only 29pc of taxi drivers in Ireland are working at night. There are anecdotal reports that suggest the pandemic has made daytime work more lucrative.
People who are still working from home may need documents and boxes delivered, while other drivers may be getting more work from HSE contracts to help vulnerable people get to hospital.
This is coupled with the fact that many taxi drivers, particularly those who have been working in the industry for a long time, don’t feel the risks that come with working at night are worth it.
There are 30pc fewer taxi drivers working in Ireland today than a decade ago. Representative groups have all said a many drivers have still not returned since the pandemic
Last week, a taxi driver in Galway was stabbed after a fight broke out between passengers in his car.
The Government and the National Transport Authority (NTA) are trying to incentivise more drivers to work between 8pm and 8am to ease the late-night taxi shortage.
From September 1, there will be a 12pc increase in taxi fares. Most of this increase will be through a “premium rate” charged for journeys at night and on Sundays and public holidays.
The NTA says 30pc of drivers have said they would consider working at night if fares were increased, but the National Private Hire Taxi Association (NPHTA) believes the rate increases won’t be enough.
NPHTA spokesman Jim Waldron said that even if drivers were getting €20 more to work at night, many would still take on extra hours during the day rather than work when they don’t feel safe.
Ireland’s licensing laws also mean huge numbers of people are trying to get home at the same time. One of the benefits of later opening hours – new legislation on this has been promised by Justice Minister Helen McEntee for later this summer – would be less pressure on taxis between 2am and 3am.
There are 30pc fewer taxi drivers working in Ireland today than a decade ago. Representative groups have all said a many drivers have still not returned since the pandemic.
25pc more late-night weekend trip requests were made in June 2022 versus June 2019
When Covid-19 hit, many chose more secure work as delivery drivers and couriers as demand for those roles spiked.
An estimated 40pc of taxi drivers have not gone back since the pandemic, and it’s understood many older drivers don’t feel safe driving taxis as the virus continues to circulate. For most of this month, there has been an intense recruitment campaign for drivers, which seems to be working. The NPHTA says dozens are taking the SPSV (Small Public Service Vehicle) test every day in Dublin alone.
But there are concerns that some drivers may be forced out of work later this year, as the maximum age for SPSVs will again be set to 10 years following an extension offered during the pandemic.
It’s estimated this will result in the expulsion of 5,300 cars from the industry. Taxi representative groups say cars that were parked up for two years shouldn’t be forced out of the fleet, and drivers should get more time to earn the money they need to buy a new car – but these are also in short supply due to a combination of factors between the pandemic and Brexit.
Free Now, the country’s most popular taxi app, points out that demand for taxis has also risen dramatically. It says it has more drivers logged on to the app now than it did pre-pandemic. It also says drivers are doing more trips than in 2019.
While there is evidence that drivers are leaving the industry, Free Now blames much higher demand for taxis for the current crisis.
Its drivers are “servicing around 35pc more taxi journeys since the beginning of 2022 versus the same period in 2019, which translates as one trip every two seconds on average”.
“At peak late-night times we currently have comparable, if not higher, volumes of active drivers logged on to the app versus 2019,” a spokeswoman said.
“In contrast, passenger demand is now exponentially higher – 25pc more late-night weekend trip requests were made in June 2022 versus June 2019.”
Free Now said it is getting far more requests for taxis than it has drivers at peak times. It said this shows “the huge number of people now relying entirely on taxi drivers to get them home late at night”.
Both Free Now and groups like the NPHTA argue it’s not sustainable to have people using different kinds of public transport to get in to town at night, but relying almost exclusively on taxis to get home. “There will never be enough taxis to get everyone home instantly,” Mr Waldron said.
Asked if there were plans to extend late-night public transport to ease demand on taxi drivers, the NTA said there are now eight late-night bus services on the Transport for Ireland network in Dublin compared with none in 2019, and a number of 24-hour services are being considered in Dublin and Cork. Dublin already has some services that run on a 24-hour schedule.
The current taxi shortage has revived the idea of apps like Uber operating ride-sharing services.
In 2019, a rural ride-sharing idea was proposed by Jim Daly, the former Cork south-west TD. The idea was that garda-vetted locals in small towns and villages could run Uber-style transport to get people home, keep local pubs alive and eliminate drink-driving.
A pilot was proposed in Kinsale, which Free Now was prepared to participate in. It said that while it was aware of the pilot, it “didn’t support any suggestion of rural ride-sharing outside an appropriate regulatory framework”.
The pilot scheme died a death after the 2020 election, when Mr Daly stood down as a TD. Taxi representative groups are against the introduction of ride-sharing, and the NPHTA has vowed to use an upcoming meeting with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to pull him up on recent comments suggesting there could be merit to having Uber in Ireland.
Some politicians are nervous about Uber and the backlash they would face from taxi drivers if they were seen to back it, with one former minister saying they believe taxi drivers would “bring Dublin to a standstill” in protest.
That’s even before considering the recent bad press that revealed Uber’s involvement in a global lobbying scandal.
Uber itself seems open to using the current taxi crisis as an opportunity to try to open a discussion about operating its ride-sharing app in Ireland. A spokesman told the Irish Independent the service was “ready to work with industry and government on solutions to the current shortage”.