The Horse Versus the Horseless Carriage in Central Park
By Bill Moore
One of last vestiges of New York City's horse-drawn heritage, the ornate carriages of Central Park, may about to come to an end if Mayor Bill di Blasio has his way. And in their place, he and others have proposed the introduction of antique electric cars, replaying, like a revival on Broadway, the same struggle that took place in all American cities more than a century ago.
It was at the turn of the 20th century that the new fangled motorcar began supplanting draft animals like horses and mules as the primary mode of personal mobility for the wealthly who could afford to keep them, and the teamsters who drove them: moving coal, ice and beer.
Only in Central Park have these throwbacks to a bygone age survived to the delight of tourists and scorn of animal rights activists, apparently on whose side the new Mayor comes down, pledging he will stop the cruel carriage trade in the park.
In their place would be antique electric cars, a concept that EV World certainly finds intriguing, to say the least. So, we decided to so a bit of research on the subject comparing the economic costs of replacing the horse-drawn carriages with the electric horseless kind. Here's what we learned.
The first question we asked is what kind of an investment is involved in buying and operating a carriage business? Actually, it's a pretty modest amount of money. We found used carriages similar to those operated in Central Park of less than $5000. They appeared to be in need of some refurbishment, so figure $8-10,000. A pair of trained harness horses will run you about the same: $8-10K, half that for a single animal. Then there's harness: figure another couple thousand dollars. For about the price of a low cost economy car, you could be in the carriage business.
Of course, that's not the end of the story, as you might expect. Horses are expensive creatures to keep, especially in a city. They require oats and hay, lots of it, but it's still pretty reasonable, with one source in the New York City area estimating about $5/day in feed costs: 365 days out of the year. But like any New Yorker, two legged or four, housing is expensive. I could find no specific numbers for stabling costs in the city, but outside it can run $1000-1,5000 a month. On top of these are regular farrier and veterinarian costs.
There's a reason carriage drivers and their animals are in Central Park nearly year-round: their animals need to earn their keep. A horse isn't like a taxi cab you can park and forget. They need constant care and attention, which is what made the motorcar such an attractive innovation a hundred years ago. The primitive cars of the time might have been slow and cumbersome, even cranky - literally - but they didn't get sick and die, nor did they urinate gallons of pee and pounds of manure on a daily basis.
That being the economic case of the horse, what about the idea of replacing them with antique electric cars?
It sounds like good idea until you start looking for one. Working electric cars from a century ago are scarce, and many that are available aren't suitable replacements for carriages. Many are two-seaters, which unless they are self-driving, means they won't work for couples, since we can assume the owner isn't going to trust some tourist with his very rare and expensive motorcar. He is going to want to drive it himself or herself, if only for insurance purposes.
Here are some of the sales prices we came across on the RM Auctions web site. All prices are for 2011.
1903 Columbia Electric Surrey: $68,750
1905 Tribelhorn Electric Brougham: $35,000
1913 Argo Electric Fore-Drive Limousine: $110,000
1920 Detroit Electric Brougham: $44,000
So, the upfront cost of an antique electric car is going to be significantly higher than the carriage and horse, several times higher. Conversely, the operating costs should be a fraction, using only electricity. The only other major expense will be parking and here the medium rate in Midtown Manhattan is $541 a month. The maintenance costs of operating an antique electric car in commercial service is a huge unknown. Can they even manage to stay in service long enough to be profitable? To our knowledge, no one's ever done it, at least not in the last 100 years.
All this suggests a potential market, albeit a small one, for replica antique cars that give passengers a taste of the past, like the horse carriages, but are dependable enough to operate year-round and in commercial service.
We don't expect the carriage operators in Central Park are going to easily give in to Mayor di Blasio, nor are animal lovers when they realize that many of the horses could end up as dog meat, as is now being reported.
In fact, the one big advantage of the horse over the antique motorcar is also they biggest drawback: they are alive. They are intelligent and have emotions. We bond with them just as we do the dogs and cats in our lives. We may say we "love" our cars, but when it breaks down and dies, we don't mourn. We just go buy a new one. It's harder to treat the animals in our lives the same way, though historically we have. Just Google dead horses on New York City streets, both past and present.
For many of us who have been raised in suburbia and city settings, far from any contact with the natural world, experiencing contact with a carriage horse may be the only time in our lives we interact with creatures larger than ourselves. That is something I think has significant value to all of us.
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