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End of the road for Chicago’s horse-drawn carriage industry

Some say horse-drawn carriages don’t belong on congested downtown streets. Others say it’s cruel. For aldermen Brian Hopkins and Brendan Reilly, it’s both. They’ve backed a ban that would start Jan. 1.

Horse-drawn carriages near Chicago’s water tower.
Take a good look at this photo. Chances are, you won’t see see anything like this on the streets of Chicago after Jan. 1, under a phase-out on horse-drawn carriages that passed a City Council committee on Wednesday.
Sun-Times file

The end of the road is near for Chicago’s much-maligned horse-drawn carriage industry.

Starting Jan. 1, the carriage rides — popular with tourists, newlyweds and prom-goers, but criticized by animal rights activists as cruel to horses and dangerous to motorists — will be banned under a long-stalled ordinance that finally cleared the City Council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection Committee on Wednesday.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he “spent the better part of a decade trying to regulate” the industry and convince carriage operators to “treat their animals in a humane way.”

It didn’t work. In each of the last 10 years, the city has issued “hundreds of violations.”

“There are folks that have an issue with this industry entirely related to traffic and public safety. There are others who care about whether these animals are being treated in a humane fashion. For me, it’s a combination of both,” Reilly said.

“I grew up surrounded by farms and horses. They’re bred to work. But they were not bred to be sucking gas fumes from the back of CTA buses and co-mingling with cement mixers. That’s not … humane treatment of animals. They do not belong in downtown busy traffic. In other cities, we’ve seen people and animals killed because they’re co-mingled with traffic.”

Reilly said he offered to shift the horse drawn carriage industry to Grant Park nearly six years ago. The answer: No.

He noted only three companies and 10 licenses are left in Chicago. That’s down from 60 licenses at the industry’s peak. It shows “people are voting with their feet,” he said.

But what about the loss to newlywed couples and prom-goers who view a sunset carriage ride down Michigan Avenue as romantic?

“If you enjoy exploiting an animal in the middle of busy traffic, I guess that’s a really fun thing to do,” Reilly said, tongue firmly in cheek.

“I’m not sympathetic. If you want to do that, go to the suburbs and rent a horse.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said Chicago has — for now — been “fortunate” to have avoided “some of the more horrific collisions” that have occurred in other cities involving horse drawn carriages.

“When you take a large, slow-moving object and put it downtown on Michigan Avenue, Chicago Avenue or inner Lake Shore Drive during peak traffic periods, you’re clearly taking a risk,” he said.

Two years ago, committee chairman Emma Mitts (37th) held a hearing on the ban but refused to call for a vote. She was incensed aldermen were talking about horses as gang violence continued unabated in her West Side ward.

Wednesday, Mitts was a no-show. The hearing was chaired by Hopkins, the License Committee’s vice-chair.

Before calling for the vote, Hopkins let the carriage-haters rant and rave about animal cruelty — as they do before almost every City Council meeting.

Then, he let the soon-to-be-extinct industry have its say.

“We’re opposed to this, but there’s probably not one thing I can say to change your mind here today. Why are you wanting the carriages gone? Nobody’s answering that overall question.” said Tony Troyer of the Horseman’s Council of Illinois.

“We have more regulation than any other state and city. Yet you would like to see a ban. ... It’s pretty bad when we have more regulations on the horse-and-carriage business than the pedicabs. How many hours can one person be out there riding around on the bike?”

Larry Ortega, owner of Chicago Horse and Carriage, tried to poke holes in the animal cruelty argument.

“Even though there are city state and federal laws clearly stating what is animal cruelty, there has never been one horse driver or owner arrested operating on the city streets of Chicago,” Ortega said.

“To think that the city is fine for a mounted police horse, but not a carriage horse is blatantly hypocritical.”

Ortega noted Chicago’s electric scooter pilot triggered over 300 hospital visits. In 40 years, the horse drawn carriage industry “can’t even touch that number,” he said.

“In reality, statistics show that we are the safest form of transportation or ride service in Chicago,” he said.