In his waning weeks in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio is making one last-ditch effort to ban New York City’s horse-drawn carriage industry, a promise he made when he first became mayor and a long controversial issue that has been the target of animal rights advocates.
News of the mayor’s attempt to revive the issue was first reported by the New York Times. He later confirmed that he plans to submit legislation to the City Council soon.
Those familiar with city politics were not surprised. The issue played a big part in the 2013 mayoral race, when New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets, or NYCLASS spent $1 million to help de Blasio against his main primary opponent, Christine Quinn.
Following a pledge that he would ban the practice on his first day as mayor, de Blasio has over the years tried to get legislation passed in the City Council. But without sufficient council support, with members citing the number of potential job losses in the industry if the bill passed, de Blasio has been forced to settle for other restrictions. They include preventing the drivers from picking up passengers on Central Park South and operating in hot weather.
The campaign to ban horse-drawn carriages re-emerged this year after two founders of NYCLASS paid for attack ads against Andrew Yang, a Democratic candidate for mayor this year.
“Agree or disagree with Mayor de Blasio on this, he’s been consistent,” said Chris Coffey, Yang’s co-campaign manager who previously worked as a lobbyist for NYCLASS.
“He’s been working on this on and off for 8 years,” Coffey added. “Not sure he’ll be able to get it passed the council but it’s no surprise he’d try.”
Here’s what else you need to know.
Why is the mayor opposed to horse-drawn carriages?
De Blasio has long sided with animal rights activists who say the Victorian-era mode of transport is anachronistic and more importantly, cruel to horses. Over the years, they have pointed to videos of horses collapsing in city streets as evidence of that.
In 2020, footage of a carriage horse collapsing in Central Park sparked outrage on social media. The horse, a 10-year-old mare, was later euthanized.
A spokesperson for horse-carriage owners later issued a statement saying the horse suffered from a genetic disease. He cited a veterinarian who said there was no evidence of mishandling.
The latest recorded incident came in September when a horse fell to the ground in a busy city street after running into a parked sedan. Later, the car was seen backing into the horse.
“In the year 2021, horses have no place pulling tourists on busy city streets,” said Ally Feldman Taylor, the founder of Voters for Animal Rights who tweeted the video. “This is a practice that is long past its time, and for a city to truly call themselves progressive we cannot have horses pulling heavy carriages in busy city streets.”
Other cities, including Chicago, have instituted bans on horse-carriage rides. And in a statement, Edita Birnkrant, the executive director of NYCLASS, argued that it was "long overdue that New York joined other global cities in shifting to abuse-free, electric-powered carriages that provide drivers with better paying, safer jobs."
De Blasio has echoed those sentiments.
“The horse-carriages just don't make sense. They're inhumane,” de Blasio told reporters on Monday. “It’s the 21st century for god’s sake.”
What’s the mayor’s plan?
De Blasio has only said that he wants to ban horse-drawn carriages and replace them with “show cars” intended for tourists. In 2014, NYCLASS unveiled a prototype of an electric vehicle that resembled an early 20th century touring car.
Dubbed the “horseless eCarriage,” the vehicle was designed to mimic the open air experience of riding through the park. According to a description on NYCLASS’s website, the car would operate at 5 miles per hour in the park and up to 30 miles per hour in city streets.
Another variation that has since been proposed is an electric-carriage similar to one that debuted in 2017 in Guadalajara, Mexico after city officials committed to banning traditional horse carriage rides there.
Notably, transportation advocates have criticized the plan for allowing vehicles into Central Park, where cars have been banned from roads—with the exception of the transverses—since 2018.
But details of a bill have yet to be shared and the mayor’s office did not elaborate when asked. “This is something the Mayor has always wanted to do, and we are working with Council and stakeholders to see if we can find a solution,” said Danielle Filson, the mayor’s press secretary.
What do those in the horse-carriage industry say?
Those who represent and work in the horse-carriage industry insist that the horses, which are required to have five weeks of vacation and regular veterinary exams, are well-cared for by drivers.
“We’re the ones that actually love horses because we decide to spend our working lives with them,” said Christine Hansen, who has driven a carriage in New York City for nine years.
New York City has 68 licensed horse-drawn carriages with 150 drivers, according to the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents the drivers. The union did not have an estimate on the revenue generated by the industry.
Hansen said drivers have no interest in operating electric vehicles. “The park was designed to be seen from the back of a carriage,” she added.
Meanwhile, the union has accused de Blasio, who has reportedly been contemplating a run for governor, of political motivations. Two of NYCLASS’s founders are wealthy individuals who have given to the mayor in the past: Wendy Neu, a philanthropist who runs her family-built recycling business, and Steve Nislick, a former real estate executive.
“This is a pathetic, shameful, and all-too familiar transactional maneuver by Mayor de Blasio to get even more campaign money from his campaign backers,” said Tony Utano, president of the TWU Local 100. “This has always been about campaign money and everyone knows it.”
The topic has now found itself intertwined with de Blasio’s potential run for governor. In an appearance on Spectrum News NY1’s “Inside City Hall” program on Monday, de Blasio said he’s open to the idea of a statewide ban on horse-drawn carriages.
”A lot of great cities around the world have just said, this is anachronistic, we're getting rid of horse carriages,” de Blasio told host Errol Louis. “I don't think they have a place in New York City or New York State.”
Will the plan pass?
It is unclear how much support a bill to ban horse-drawn carriage would garner in the City Council. The New York Post recently reported unnamed sources as saying there was “no appetite” to take on such legislation.
Queens City Councilmember Robert Holden, a moderate Democrat and frequent critic of the mayor, is said to be working on a bill, according to The Post.
Efforts to reach Holden on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Asked about whether his last-minute push would work, the mayor replied, “It's the end of the term for all of us. Sometimes it's possible to get some things done.”
Where does mayor-elect Eric Adams stand on the issue?
Evan Thies, a spokesman for the mayor-elect, said Adams does not support the ban but “is open to discussing the issue.”
An earlier version of this story described an incident in which a horse fell to the ground after being hit by a driver of a car. The driver backed into the car after the horse got up. It is not clear from the video why the horse fell. A spokesman for TWU says the last incident involved a horse running into a parked car.