Anti-carriage horse activists split on electric car alternative

Carriage horse Blackie and driver Sean Dennehy prepare to set off for a ride through Central Park. Credit: Emily Johnson

It’s safe to say that there is little common ground between those who want to ban the carriage horse industry in New York City and those who want to save it.

Animal rights groups have cast the industry as cruel and inhumane to horses, while carriage drivers say the animals are well cared for under the umbrella of a highly regulated industry.

But the pro-ban movement is split on one key issue. The president of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, in a rare instance of agreement with carriage drivers, says the electric cars Mayor Bill de Blasio touted in his campaign as a horseless alternative are an idea that needs to be put down.

The prototype faux-vintage car, commissioned by pro-ban group New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets for $450,000, is set to arrive in New York in June. NYCLASS is in the process of securing private financing for the rest of the fleet.

“No one is losing their livelihood,” said NYCLASS Director Allie Feldman. “The drivers are simply switching from driving a horse carriage to driving the electric horseless carriage car.”

A model of the proposed electric car, designed by Jason Wenig, a custom car designer based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Credit: NYCLASS

The carriage drivers, along with CBHDC President Elizabeth Forel, beg to differ. Of course, their reasons for opposing the cars are quite different.

The drivers are horsemen, and find it galling that NYCLASS talks about driving a car and driving a horse as if they were interchangeable jobs. For her part, Forel opposes the project because she sees it as expensive and unworkable, and unlikely to expedite the ban her coalition has been working toward.

“No one in their right mind would invest big bucks for such a risky investment,” Forel said, pointing out that cars are not allowed to use the roads of Central Park on the weekend. The city’s Parks Department declined to comment on the issue.

A better and cheaper option, Forel said, would be to retrofit existing carriages with motors. Feldman, in turn, said converted carriages would never pass federal highway safety requirements.

Forel also took issue with the proposed three-year phaseout, a time frame she said is three years too long.

“One has to also know the mindset of the drivers to know that you do not phase anything in with them because to allow them to maintain a foothold is a huge mistake,” she said.

Credit: Emily Johnson

Stephen Malone, a second-generation carriage driver and the spokesman for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York, called the proposed retro vehicle a “fantasy car.”

“People here are businessmen,” he said. “What they want to do is steal our horses, then they want us to pay $1,700 a month for an untested business.”

Mechanical engineer Eric Lundquist has his own concerns about the scheme.

In 2008, Lundquist was running a sightseeing company in San Francisco that specialized in vintage touring cars when he was approached by Steve Nislick, the parking lot mogul who founded NYCLASS that same year, to design cars for Central Park. Nislick eventually went with another custom car designer, Jason Wenig of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The last contact Lundquist had with Nislick was in December of last year, when Nislick called, saying he had commissioned two battery-operated “golf cart type” cars for use in Central Park on a “trial basis.” Lundquist warned the businessman that the lithium ion batteries he planned to incorporate into the cars were not up to the task.

“I told him I didn’t think that was a good idea,” Lundquist said. “I just felt what he was trying to do, electrically — if you get eight people in the vehicle that’s 6,000 pounds [including the car], and the current generation batteries aren’t good enough to do that.”

He advised Nislick to invest in more expensive, top-of-the-line Tesla batteries, noting that the cars should be designed around the batteries and not the other way around.

“But you can’t talk to this guy,” he said. “The problem is, Nislick is not an engineer. He’s going to go for whatever’s cheaper. He views this as a business venture. You don’t get all excited about animals, not if you’re him.”

But according to Feldman, the cars are all but a done deal — and NYCLASS has the edge over Forel’s CBHDC  in terms of influence. The group hitched its fortunes to de Blasio when it played a key role in funding the super PAC New York City Is Not for Sale, which helped sink former Council Speaker Christine Quinn in the mayoral election.

“There is no doubt about the fact that these electric cars will become a reality,” she said, adding that the cars would be manufactured in New York, bringing additional jobs to the city. “The carriage horse industry is trying to sow the seeds of doubt because they have no actual arguments for the perpetuation of the unsafe and inhumane use of carriage horses in one of the most congested urban areas in the world.”

Gear hangs on the wall at the Clinton Park Stables on West 52nd Street. Credit: Emily Johnson

But the opinion that the industry is inhumane is by no means universal. Veterinarians visiting the Clinton Park stables on West 52nd Street, home to half of the horses in the industry, said on Sunday that the horses were living under good conditions and that the exercise they get at work appeared to be beneficial to them.

Faith Perrin of People for Animals expressed surprise at the stables, saying she’d been led to believe they would be worse. “These are very nice stalls for horses this size,” she said.

Her colleague, Laura Acosta, agreed. “As a vet I think we agree, they’re healthy and well cared for. It’s what they were bred for. I think this is an issue that is not so black and white.”

If the ban does go into effect, the drivers of the city’s 68 carriages will be out of work. The electric car plan would guarantee them jobs — if they are willing to make the switch. Their medallions would transfer over.

“Absolutely not,” said driver Sean Dennehy, standing next to his horse, Blackie, on Central Park South on Sunday.

“I own my own carriage. This is my whole life, you know. You can’t pet an electric car.”

Asked on Monday when a bill banning carriage horses might be introduced, the mayor’s office simply restated de Blasio’s commitment to ending the industry.

Follow Emily Johnson on Twitter @emilyjreports


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  1. “Vintage electric cars” aren’t the only way to stop inhumane animal treatment. These cars are just a convenient partial solution to the loss of carriage driver jobs. If the real issue is humane animal treatment, well, there’s already a solution that’s park-friendly as well as humane: pedicabs.

    Speaking only about Central Park here, we have to presume that “park-appropriate vintage electric cars” (hah) would be limited to the speed of horse-drawn carriages (typically, walking speed). Yet, according to the Times:

    “In Central Park, the cars would cruise at five miles per hour, but they would be able to reach a top speed of 35 m.p.h.” Given human nature, and given the example set by many park motor vehicle drivers, and sometimes even by the carriage drivers themselves, I’d expect the higher speeds would be pretty darn common.

    But even if the electric cars truly were to keep to 5 mph (which already is faster than typical carriage speed), they’re still too large and too heavy to safely & conveniently share the loop in any reasonably park-like manner, especially when the loop is crowded. And if they were to replace horse-drawn carriages adequately, they’d have to be in operation during current carriage hours, which means 10AM-1AM weekdays and 9AM-1AM weekends. That would in some sense set the car-free park clock back to 1966.

    If lost jobs and tourist dollars do need to be replaced with these electric cars, let the cars “cruise” on city streets, where the electric cars at least might reclaim some asphalt from the gas-powered ones. Let lovers romantically cruise the park in “vintage” pedicabs.