By Nick Powell
November 08, 2013
City & State
Of all the issues facing New York City’s next mayor—from improving public education to creating jobs to affordable housing—who would have thought that one of the most talked-about subjects throughout this year’s campaign would be the fate of the Central Park carriage horse industry?
The debate as to whether to ban horse-drawn carriages has been a focus of animal rights activists from the beginning of the mayoral race, with forums on the issue and vociferous protests, pitting these advocates against the Teamsters union that represents the industry. Both Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio and Republican nominee Joe Lhota have stated their opposition to the carriages—a longtime favorite of tourists and romantics alike—as well as their support for a City Council bill that would essentially end the industry altogether.
In September de Blasio, who now looks increasingly likely to become the city’s next mayor given his sizable advantage over Lhota in recent polls, pledged to end the industry “right away.”
There has been speculation, however, that after de Blasio received the endorsement of the Teamsters’ union in September following his victory in the Democratic primary, he might become less inclined to ban horse-drawn carriages. However, de Blasio reaffirmed his opposition to the industry in a recent debate.
“I said very clearly we are ending horse carriages in New York City,” he said. “Yes, I received support from a union that feels the other way, but that doesn’t change my opinion one bit, and I’ve made that clear to that union, so I’m moving forward on this plan.”
Sources say that the Teamsters Joint Council—the larger Teamsters’ union has many local chapters in the city—went with de Blasio because Lhota was less amenable to negotiating a new contract for some of the larger local chapters. As a result Local 553, which represents the carriage drivers, was forced to fall in line.
At the core of the debate is the treatment of the horses that drive the carriages. Animal rights advocates argue that the 1,200-pound horses are overworked, pounding the pavement for nine hours a day, seven days a week, and are not meant to be part of midtown traffic, noting that there have been 20 accidents in the past two and a half years involving horse carriages. Advocates add that when horses get spooked they bolt in the opposite direction of whatever stimuli scares them, and when that happens they can overturn their carriages and can crash into cars.
One often-cited incident happened two years ago when a carriage horse named Charlie dropped dead on his way to work in 2011, though it’s unclear if the cause of death was related to pulling a carriage. Three horses have died in accidents over the last three decades.
The carriage drivers, however, assert that since tighter regulations were put in place in 2010, horses now have regular veterinary checkups and the industry goes through regular inspections by the city.
Teamsters Local 553 has stated that it is committed to fighting for the jobs of the carriage drivers. As a compromise on that point, the New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), a nonprofit animal protection group, has proposed phasing out the carriages in favor of a new, cleaner tourist experience: electric antique replica cars.
“The idea is that the drivers would transfer the medallions they have for the horse carriages, a one-for-one medallion exchange, and instead get the medallion for the electric car, and simply drive that instead, and we would take care of making sure that the horses are retired to loving homes,” said Allie Feldman, the executive director of NYCLASS.
The Teamsters did not respond to a request for comment as to the union’s opinion of NYCLASS’ proposal.
Feldman argues that the electric cars would allow the carriage horse drivers to keep their jobs, and that the new business could potentially be even more lucrative than the carriage horse industry. Carriage horses are a cash-only field that rakes in $15 million per year, with their rates regulated by the City Council at $50 per 20-minute ride. Feldman says the advent of the electric antique cars could potentially double the revenue for the industry because carriage drivers typically miss up to 60 days of work per year due to weather, and the cars would be able to take longer trips.
“We’ve actually had a number of drivers who have contacted us and said they’re interested in making the switch to the electric cars. There’s just not consensus among the group, but they have politely and quietly contacted us,” Feldman said.
Unfortunately for NYCLASS, that lack of consensus is what will keep the electric car plan from coming to fruition any time soon. Stephen Malone, a spokesman for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York, said that the animal rights group has put out misleading information about the electric cars. Malone claims that the cost of purchasing the car will still fall on the drivers.
“The prototype that’s made is supposed to cost upwards of $400,000, and every car thereafter is supposed to run between $125[,000] and 175,000 apiece, which the carriage operators would have to pay for— which is completely unconstitutional and, in our view, un-American,” Malone said.
Malone also questioned the motives of NYCLASS. A co-founder of the group, Steve Nislick, was a top real estate executive at Edison Properties. Malone believes Nislick would like to take over the buildings that house the horse stables on the West Side of Manhattan, close to where the Hudson Yards development is being built, which led to him founding NYCLASS and donating large amounts of money to the de Blasio campaign.
Records show that Nislick has personally donated $5,500 to de Blasio’s campaign. A spokesman for Edison Properties said that the company has no connection with NYCLASS, which operates as an independent organization.
Malone said that should the City Council bill pass, his organization would “absolutely” challenge the legislation in court. He added that NYCLASS’ claims that it will find homes for the horses are disingenuous, citing the prohibitive costs of caring for horses. He insisted that the horses are more likely to be slaughtered.
“The horse is the celebrity, the horse is the star,” Malone said. “If people want to come see the park, they can take a walk through the park or a bicycle. The horse aspect is the main attraction. That’s why our business is established as a good business.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post said the Steve Nislick is a top real estate executive at Edison Properties. In fact, Nislick stepped down as CEO in August 2012 and now serves in an advisory capacity as a consultant.