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Taxi shortages: ‘A guy in here only last weekend had to walk six or seven kilometres home at 2am’

Problems getting taxis in the west of Ireland are putting people off socialising, say business owners, while drivers decry recent rule introductions

When Geraldine Lavelle worked at the Atlantic Technological University in Sligo, she regularly opted to manoeuvre her wheelchair home, a trek that could take 40 minutes, especially if she was battling wind and rain.

“It was better than sitting around not knowing when a taxi would come,” says the artist and writer, who has been paralysed from the chest down since 2013 when a truck knocked her off her bicycle.

This disability rights campaigner has a different perspective than those who believe the “chronic shortage” of taxis is partly due to the requirement since 2010, that all new small public service vehicles (SPSVs), including taxis, hackneys and limousines, must be wheelchair accessible.

It is just one factor highlighted by a lobby group, the Taxis for Ireland Coalition, formed late last year in response to what they say is the damage being done to the late-night economy by a shortage of taxis nationwide.


The coalition, which includes vintners’ groups, the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) and taxi-hailing companies Bolt and Uber, says a recent survey shows seven out of 10 people across Ireland find it difficult to get home from pubs and restaurants in their area.

The taxi regulator, the National Transport Authority (NTA), found in a survey, in May 2023, that of more than 1,000 urban and rural taxi users, 81 per cent reported finding it easy (under 15 minutes) to get a taxi.

But Leitrim nightclub owner Kenny Murtagh knows people who have walked long distances home in the early hours after nights out in Carrick-on-Shannon. “A guy in here only last weekend had to walk six or seven kilometres home at two o’clock in the morning,” he says.

The problem getting taxis is putting people off socialising, says Murtagh, who imagines Carrick’s problems are “like every town in the country”.

The other side of it is, taxi drivers can get frustrated because the ones that are working are under so much pressure they can’t be hanging around for someone who says ‘I’ll just finish my pint’

—  Sligo hotel manager Graeme Semple

Mags Downey Martin has a selection of taxi numbers in her phone but “at least half of them are obsolete” because so many drivers never returned after the Covid lockdowns.

The chief executive of Ballina Chamber of Commerce has been told by those in the sector that taxi numbers locally are down 40 per cent since 2022. She and her husband are lucky because walking home at night from the town centre takes them only 20 minutes.

“As safe as Ballina is,” she says, she would not walk home alone. “A certain demographic are opting to socialise at home rather than go out and have to worry about getting home.” Those who do go out at night must be “shrewd” about the time they leave, she says. “You have to be gone between 12 and one o’clock. Wait until 2.30am at your peril.”

Derek Leonard runs Harrison’s bar in Ballina, which made international headlines when Joe Biden visited in 2017. The US president is beaming in the photographs captured that day but Leonard says many of his older clientele are less relaxed because of worries about getting home.

“They come in at 8pm and they are so stressed out they are gone before 11pm,” says the publican.

Graeme Semple, deputy general manager at the Sligo Park Hotel says receptionists and night porters often bear the brunt of the taxi shortage as guests can get irate if there’s a delay.

“A lot of people who fly in for weddings might have to leave the hotel at 4.30am or 5am to make a return flight from Knock, and it can be tricky getting taxis then,” he says. As well as hosting weddings, the Sligo Park often accommodates those attending functions at out-of-town venues such as Markree Castle and Castle Dargan Hotel.

“Unless there is a bus put on for them they can be trickling through the door up to 5am because there might only be one of two taxis working,” he says.

“It is always tricky around closing time as drivers may pick and choose what trips they are going to do,” he says. “And the other side of it is taxi drivers can get frustrated because the ones that are working are under so much pressure they can’t be hanging around for someone who says ‘I’ll just finish my pint’ when they have a backlog of calls.”

Terry McTiernan (76) has been in the taxi business in Sligo for 51 years and agrees that the cost of getting into the sector can be a disincentive, even with the maximum grant of €17,500 for a wheelchair accessible taxi.

“The 10-year rule was criminal,” he says, explaining that taxis now have to be taken off the road at 10 years. Having paid €84,000 for a Mercedes Estate E380 in 2008, it galls him to see the car “still going around Sligo in mint condition” a long time after he had to get rid of it. “The taxi regulator says: 10 years, car off the road, good luck and goodbye.”

And while he got a €20,000 grant when he got an electric car, a Volkswagen ID.4, he had to scrap a car and transfer the licence. What hurt him more was that Volkswagen dropped the price of the car by €12,500 since he got it, so his outlay of €43,000 could have been just €30,500 if his timing was better.

The owner of three taxis and two chauffeur-driven cars still works 12-13 hour days but agrees it can be lucrative “if you put in the hours”.

Paul O’Donnell who runs Thomas Connolly’s, Sligo’s oldest pub, says that so many taxi drivers never returned after Covid and it has had an impact on his business, as customers – especially those who need babysitters – can’t take a chance.

“Emigration is also a factor. Some of the younger lads headed off to Australia and Canada. And the costs of getting into the business are astronomical, because if you get a taxi it has to be wheelchair accessible.”

The publican is thankful for the extension of the Local Link bus service.

“People come in early at 5 or 6pm for a drink and then out for a meal. They can get back on the bus around 11.30pm, so it is not a bad night.”

As a veteran in the industry, Terry McTiernan doesn’t have a wheelchair accessible vehicle but says while some of those who do “provide an excellent service”, others seem to give preference to non-wheelchair users.

“It is time consuming. You have to get out, open the back door, lower your ramp, get the wheelchair up, then secure the wheelchair,” he says.

He also believes some with wheelchair-accessible vehicles have a higher rate for passengers in wheelchairs. “I think that is a little bit of discrimination against someone who is disabled.”

Figures highlighted by campaigners show a dramatic dip in SPSVs (small public-service vehicles) operating nationally from 21,900 in 2013, at a time when the population has increased sharply.

The most recent figures from the NTA show that on January 31st there were 19,774 licensed SPSVs, 10,496 of them in Dublin.

A spokesman for the regulator says the 26,360 taxi drivers licensed nationally represents 97 per cent of pre-Covid levels while the number in Dublin “now exceeds pre-Covid levels”. The number of licensed SPSVs is now at 93 per cent of pre-Covid levels after a “hugely improved influx into the industry ravaged by Covid”, with 896 SMSVs added to the fleet in 2023.

We are very clear that any new taxis or hackneys would have to be Garda vetted and would need a licence - but it should be easier to get a licence

—  Adrian Cummins of the Restaurants Association of Ireland

A recent report commissioned by Bolt, which introduced its taxi-hailing app to Ireland in 2020, found 43 per cent of trips requested by customers in Dublin went unfulfilled during peak times while the figure was higher in Cork, at 56 per cent.

The NTA said only about 5,000 of the 26,360 drivers licensed nationwide were affiliated with the Bolt and Uber apps “and, of course, drivers can choose whether or not to answer app requests when there is lots of work on the street, for which they don’t have to pay up to 15 per cent commission”.

In a November 2023 report, Bolt highlighted Ireland’s “largely inflexible” SPSVs regime and urged a rethink on issues like the wheelchair accessible rule, rigid taxi fares and rules governing drivers using apps who are licensed and dispatched as taxis by a central operator.

Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the RAI, says there has been “a lot of spin and scaremongering” about what the coalition is looking for. “We are very clear that any new taxis or hackneys would have to be Garda vetted and would need a licence – but it should be easier to get a licence.”

Having a wheelchair-accessible vehicle should be optional rather than mandatory, he says, and aspiring drivers should not need to do a geography test in an age when Google maps can bring you “right to the door”.

McTiernan agrees the age profile of taxi drivers is older and says the sector should be “opened up”.

“Anyone coming into the industry in Sligo I would go and shake their hand and wish them luck and tell them: If you work hard there is money to be made.”

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