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Ald. Burke wants to phase out horse-drawn carriages

Chicago horse carriage rides Michigan Pearson. | Sun-Times files

Chicago horse and carriage rides at Michigan and Pearson. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: March 7, 2014 1:33PM

Chicago’s horse-drawn carriages have been frequent targets of sanitation crackdowns, but they would be phased out entirely if Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council’s most powerful alderman have their way.

“Hurry up and get your last ride in,” Emanuel joked at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

With the mayor’s blessing, Ald. Edward Burke (14th) wants to stop renewing licenses for the city’s 25 horse-drawn carriages because he considers them unsafe, unsanitary and cruel to the horses.

“Carriage rides have outlived their usefulness in Chicago. I would argue it is an unsafe and obsolete tradition that our city should simply ban,” Burke was quoted as saying in a press release.

Emanuel, who has already tightened the regulatory reins on horse-drawn carriages, did not disagree.

“I consider that part of the modernization of our transportation system,” the mayor joked.

Turning serious, he said, “It’s a step forward and the right thing. Obviously, we’ll have a debate and a discussion. But [it has] my general support.”

Emanuel was coy when asked why he wants to get rid of a downtown fixture that’s popular with the tourists he so desperately wants to attract.

“It’s time for us to look at it and ask some questions. Whether it’s a ban or some reforms to it, I’m generally of the view [that] just because we do things and [have] done things in the past doesn’t mean we don’t ask some questions whether it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Larry Ortega, owner of Chicago Horse & Carriage, argued that horse-drawn carriages are a “unique and charming” form of transportation that helps Chicago “offer something the suburbs don’t.”

“You see all of these restaurants like Cheescake Factory and Gibsons. They’re all in the suburbs. What we have in Chicago is the charm, but we also have the carriages and the tours we offer,” Ortega told the Sun-Times.

“All of the people gravitate toward us,” Ortega said. “They want to pet the horses. They’re constantly asking us directions. Valentine’s Day is coming up. We’re very popular for date nights, proms. It’s not obsolete at all. We have hotels and restaurants constantly calling us. If you take that away, what else do you have? What would they put there instead — more buses and trolleys? We already have those.”

Four years ago, Chicago’s horse-drawn carriage owners raised a stink — and predicted a rash of Gold Coast accidents and worse-than-normal traffic jams — over a regulation championed by downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) that would have forced drivers to stop and wash the street whenever a horse urinated.

Carriage horses were already required to wear diapers, an infamous legislative legacy of Reilly’s colorful predecessor, Burton Natarus.

On Wednesday, Reilly was not quite ready to join the call to phase out horse-drawn carriages. But he was warming to the idea of at least pushing carriages off the streets and into designated parks.

“Most of my constituents look at horse carriages as vehicles that snarl traffic and take up loading zone spaces. I also hear from animal rights advocates who are very concerned about the well being of these animals,” Reilly said.

“Ald. Burke will spur an important debate that’s probably long overdue. That is, do horses belong on congested, polluted city streets? There are other options. There could be a role for horse carriages in certain public parks. But we need to really examine ... whether or not it’s good transportation policy to have four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriages operating in the central business district.”

Last year, Reilly championed a requirement that carriages prominently display decals declaring temperatures under which horses can legally operate: below 90 degrees and above 15 degrees.

A few months later, Emanuel persuaded the City Council to tighten up even further — by forcing horse-drawn carriages to pay higher licensing fees and jump through the same regulatory hoops as cabdrivers — including a test of city geography.

Burke’s ordinance would not ban horse-drawn carriages outright. It would simply refuse to renew their existing licenses, thus phasing out the industry over time.

“Despite all of these rules and regulations, the larger question still remains whether horse-drawn carriages should operate at all in Chicago,” Burke was quoted as saying.

“It is my goal, at a minimum, to begin that discussion.”


Twitter: @fspielman

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