During last year's New York mayoral campaign, Bill de Blasio was very clear about his position on carriage horses in Central Park: He thought the animals were working under unhealthy conditions and he wanted them sent out to pasture. “We're going to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape in New York City," de Blasio said shortly before his January 1 inauguration. "They're not humane, they're not appropriate to the year 2014. It's over."
Now that he’s in office, de Blasio has been moving ahead with plans to remove the 150-year-old attraction from the park. But it looks like the path to ban the carriages, long a tourist favorite and a visual cliché factory, is not necessarily going to be a smooth one.
This week, New Yorkers got a first look at one proposed alternative: an old-timey automobile powered by an electric motor. The $450,000 prototype electric buggy was unveiled at the New York Auto Show by New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets, known as NYCLASS, one of the major forces working toward the elimination of carriage horses in the park. Modeled on old Rolls-Royces, production models would cost between $150,000 and $175,000.
The debate over the proposal to eliminate the horses has been heating up in the past few weeks. On one side are NYCLASS, the ASPCA, the mayor, and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, all of whom argue that the stressful streets of New York City are no place for horses. Those in favor of keeping the carriage horses include the Irish actor Liam Neeson, whose countrymen are heavily represented among the buggy drivers, and the Daily News, which has mounted a "Save Our Horses" petition drive. They contend that the horses are well treated and are doing work they enjoy.
The carriage horse trade may seem like a small part of a huge city, accounting for only between 300 and 400 total jobs, but the conflict over the carriage trade's fate has been high-profile and well-funded. According to the New York Times, NYCLASS pumped more than $1.3 million into last year’s mayoral and City Council elections. They put their muscle behind anti-carriage candidates, while also targeting longtime frontrunner and then council speaker Christine Quinn, who was in favor of keeping the carriages, with a negative ad blitz. As Quinn’s star rapidly fell in the run-up to the Democratic primary, de Blasio's rose.
It seems uncertain, though, that the mayor could currently muster the council votes needed to pass a ban. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows 64 percent of New Yorkers in favor of keeping the horses in the park, and the electric car proposal has met with a lukewarm reception from the head of the Central Park Conservancy, who told the council, "adding vehicles to the mix will make the park less safe." Advocates of active transportation have worked hard for years to limit the number of hours that regular cars can use the park, opening it up to runners, walkers, and bicyclists, who use it heavily.
While the vintage-looking electric cars have a top speed of 30 mph, NYCLASS has proposed they could be regulated with a GPS device to operate no faster than 5 mph while in the park (they could theoretically cruise elsewhere as well).
"Our proposal of replacing the horse carriages with an electric horseless carriage is a path forward that will preserve jobs and allow the tradition of tours through Central Park to continue while also ending the practice of carriage horses inhumanely and unsafely operating in New York City," NYCLASS’s executive director said in an email.
The question is whether that kind of ride would provide anything like the same kind of appeal that the horses and carriages do, and what impact the electric cars would have on other park users in one of the few parts of the city that is, at least much of the time, free of the motorized four-wheelers that have replaced the horse and buggy everywhere else.