Council should give 'horseless carriage' proposal a tryout

The long-running argument over the continued use of horse-drawn carriages in Manhattan is one of those intractable debates this city seems to produce.

15 May 2013

The long-running argument over the continued use of horse-drawn carriages in Manhattan is one of those intractable debates this city seems to produce.

On one side are advocates who maintain that the conditions the horses have to endure over the course of their lives — traffic-choked streets and sometimes cramped stables — amount to mistreatment. They say the animals can be easily startled and a number have been killed or injured in collisions with cars and trucks.

On the other side is an industry which claims that it is upholding a time-honored tradition that thousands of tourists and New Yorkers out on the town enjoy; the activists should butt out, say defenders of the industry.

For years, the argument has been about whether horse-drawn carriages should continue to be allowed or be banned altogether; predictably, it went nowhere. But now, a coalition calling itself NYCLASS (New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets) has put forth an alternative interim proposal that we think could work as a viable compromise.

The group makes no secret of its long-term goal of ending the carriage-horse trade and retiring the 220 horses now in use to farms — a more suitable habitat than Midtown streets. But, for now, the group is proposing a pilot program in which a vintage car of the "horseless carriage" era would ply the same routes in Central Park used by the horse-drawn carriages. The replica 1909 Pierce Arrow would be powered by electricity.

Depending on the success of the pilot program, more replica cars could be added to the fleet and the horse-drawn carriages could be phased out over time.

NYCLASS cites an study done by Sam Schwartz ("Gridlock Sam") Engineering, showing a full fleet of the vintage cars would generate $33 million in revenue for the city as opposed to $19 million for the carriages.

However, legislation authorizing the pilot program has been stalled in the City Council, where Speaker Christine Quinn refuses to allow the bill to come to the floor. A spokesman for Ms. Quinn said she has "expressed serious concerns about the project."

One of the concerns frequently cited by opponents is the possible loss of jobs. That seems a weak argument to preserve the status quo. Presumably, those who drive the carriages now could easily be retrained to drive the cars. The industry can certainly adapt.

But a spokeswoman for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York said, "Why on earth would anybody who is in this business because we love horses — why on earth would we want to give up our partners for something mechanical because somebody else, who has never even been in our stables, thinks that there is a problem when there actually is not?"

However, NYCLASS says their concern goes beyond disputed allegations of poor treatment.

 "We think it's inhumane to have a horse work in congested midtown traffic, where they're breathing exhaust fumes," Ms. Feldman said. "They live this nose-to-tailpipe existence where they have their nose right up against the back of a car. They can be hit by cars, trucks or buses. Horses are flight animals, so if they get spooked, they just bolt."

It's hard to argue with that assessment of the life of a carriage horse. Indeed, driving horses amid Midtown traffic chaos for long hours seems crazy and cruel at the same time.

That's why we question why Ms. Quinn and other members of the Council won't even consider this modest proposal. They have nothing to lose by giving horseless carriages a tryout.


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