Can an Electric Car Really Replace Central Parks Horse-Drawn Carriages?

Can an Electric Car Really Replace Central Park's Horse-Drawn Carriages? Can an Electric Car Really Replace Central Park's Horse-Drawn Carriages?
Comparison Tests From the December 2014 issue of Car and Driver

“We are as famous as the gondolas in Venice. That’s how iconic we are in this city.” So says Ian McKeever with his Irish brogue and the hyperbole that apparently affects all the horse-drawn-carriage drivers in New York City’s Central Park. “I’d say that 90 percent of the horses you see here, if they weren’t here, they’d be dead.”

Thing is, New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, wants them gone. And the animal-rights activists who helped elect him last year have already produced an alternative: a 6400-pound electric dreadnought styled to resemble brass-era motor carriages. Called the Horseless eCarriage, it’s intended to keep all the 160-or-so current carriage drivers—every one a card-carrying Teamster—employed, while the 220-or-so geldings and mares currently in the tourist business are retired to glistening glades where they’ll find gentle contentment among self-actualized unicorns and technicolored rainbows. Or, conversely, if you believe the drivers, shipped to a rendering plant.

Cars won the war against horses more than 100 years ago, but here’s one lingering battle. It was a natural for a comparison test, though it would have to be conducted in the middle of traffic in one of the busiest cities on earth. Except that the private Central Park Conservancy that manages the place generally despises all automobiles and doesn’t want the eCarriage in the park, much less a car magazine testing one. And the leaders of the pro-horse Historic Horse-Drawn Carriages of Central Park NYC wanted nothing to do with us, either. Undeterred by the challenges and unwounded by those slights, we did it anyhow.

Exploring the governance of New York City is unpleasant. But to tell this story, we must. Gotham politics are an intramural blood sport. Virtually everyone involved is a Democrat, the rhetoric is over the top, the newspapers blast lurid headlines, celebrities stir the pot on both sides, and real estate is often lurking at the core of every issue. All New Yorkers have an opinion, though only 24 percent of eligible voters turned out for the last mayoral election.

New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS) is the animal-rights group behind the eCarriage. Founded in 2008 by Steve Nislick, a 70-ish parking-garage mogul who lives near Central Park, the group has relentlessly ­portrayed the horse-drawn-carriage owners and drivers as cruel and ­abusive to the animals. It’s also been politically savvy in backing de Blasio. According to the New York Daily News, Nislick contributed $174,000 for the 2013 Democratic primary, including money for attack ads against putative front-runner Christine Quinn that many believe opened the door for de Blasio’s nomi­nation. The mayor owes him and his horse-hugging cohorts.

Considering Nislick’s real-estate acumen, the carriage drivers read into the NYCLASS campaign not an effort to save equines, but a cynically veiled attempt to make a deal for the ridiculously valuable land under the stables in which their horses are housed. “I’ve never been interested in these properties and do not want them now,” Nislick wrote on the NYCLASS website in January, further promising to not bid on any of the four stables, all located in the rapidly gentrifying west-side neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, should they come up for sale.

While de Blasio has promised to get rid of the horse-drawn carriages, no such legislation has yet made it to the contentious 51-member city council. And the issue seems to be slipping down the mayor’s list of political priorities. NYCLASS, though, had the eCarriage prototype ready for us to drive.