Old Hull's cab shortage is causing bad behaviour — like drunk driving
'Disturbing' lack of options leading to long waits, arguments, and impaired driving
It's closing time on a recent Saturday morning on rue Laval in downtown Gatineau's Old Hull district.
About 50 people are waiting outside at 2 a.m. for taxis in –20 C weather.
Two of them get into a heated argument over one of the rare cabs that pulls up, and a bouncer has to step in.
Some in the crowd wait more than an hour for their taxi. Others choose to walk. There's talk that some will take the chance they're sober enough to drive home.
"It's often very rough," said Émilie Vadeboncoeur, speaking a few hours earlier to a Radio-Canada reporter.
"At least if you leave before midnight, it will be all right. But between midnight and 3 a.m., it can be a long wait … I've never waited less than 30 minutes in winter."
After her first call to Crown Taxi went unanswered, Vadeboncoeur tried again and was told a driver would be there in five to 10 minutes.
After 45 minutes of waiting, she decided to walk home.
No late-night buses
Customers and people in the bar industry say this is a common weekend scene.
There are no Société de transport de l'Outaouais (STO) buses running to Old Hull after 12:30 a.m., while ride-hailing services are unreliable given drivers can take home a higher portion of the fare in Ontario, on the other side of the Ottawa River.
The faster that people leave Old Hull, the less there are problems.- Félix Pitre-Francoeur , bartender
Combine those factors with taxi drivers who'd rather wait for older, calmer customers outside the Casino du Lac-Leamy, and the result is a taxi shortage that's stranding frustrated people outside.
Contrast this dynamic with Ottawa's ByWard Market, where city buses run to major transit hubs 24 hours a day and widespread ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft meant Radio-Canada reporters only had to wait five minutes for some sort of ride.
One bartender places the blame for crime in Hull's bar district on the lack of taxis.
"It surely would help [to have more here]," said Félix Pitre-Francoeur, who tends bar at Minotaure, in French. "The faster that people leave Old Hull, the less there are problems."
'Disturbing' lack of options
Another safety risk, people say, is that the lack of taxis is causing some people to contemplate driving while impaired.
"I have friends who say 'Let's cancel the taxi and take the car.' Then they drive drunk. It's irresponsible," Vadeboncoeur said.
The lack of late-night options is "disturbing," said Hubert Sacy, the director of Éduc'alcool, a Quebec non-profit that encourages responsible drinking
In a French-language interview, Sacy said officials and companies shouldn't be making decisions that would lead people to drink and drive. He wants to pull together a meeting with STO, the provincial transportation ministry and city officials to find improvements.
Vision centre-ville, a group that wants to support a thriving environment for businesses in downtown Gatineau, said better transportation would mean more customers, too.
Casino clientele less rowdy
Serge Leblanc, the owner of the companies that make up more than 90 per cent of Gatineau's taxis, said he doesn't think there's a shortage of taxis overall — it's just that most are at the casino.
One driver, Vincent Denis, said the customers there are less rowdy than the ones they pick up in Old Hull.
"There, it's 18-year-olds who are learning about drinking," said Denis. "[At the casino] the clientele is older."
Leblanc's Crown and Régal taxi companies hold 77 of Gatineau's 84 taxi permits.
According to the province, the other seven permits aren't being used.
Could extending hours help?
Hanging over the taxi situation is the idea of extending Hull's bar hours to 3 a.m.
Closing time was 3 a.m. until 1997, when the former City of Hull forced bars to match Ottawa's closing time of 2 a.m., in an effort to curb late-night noise and violence in the neighbourhood — some of it from people crossing the Ottawa River once bars closed in Ontario.
The area's councillor proposed last year to look at returning to a closing time of 3 a.m., the norm in the rest of Quebec.
Alexandre Leblanc, a member of Vision centre-ville and the general manager of an Old Hull bar, said an extra hour of alcohol service would spread out the mass exodus from local bars.
However, University of Ottawa geography professor Marc Brosseau isn't so sure.
In the 1990s, Brosseau said, the 3 a.m. closing time just meant that patrons scrapped over taxis one hour later.
Gatineau city council is expected to vote this spring on a pilot project to extend hours temporarily, either in certain parts of Hull or across the entire district.
With files from Jérôme Bergeron and Catherine Lanthier