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It’s long past time to ban horse-drawn carriages in Philadelphia | Opinion

The change should have happened decades ago, writes Janet White. There are numerous reasons to do so now, including technology, efficiency, sanitation, traffic safety and animal welfare.

A tour guide points out historic sites from a tourist horse drawn carriage near Independence Mall in June.
A tour guide points out historic sites from a tourist horse drawn carriage near Independence Mall in June.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Horses don’t belong on 21st-century city streets. Seems like a no-brainer, but in actuality, many 2,000-pound horses weave through busy Philadelphia traffic every day, to the peril of themselves and all the pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists surrounding them.

Horse-drawn carriages were historically the prime mover of people and goods. There was no other option until the internal combustion engine became popularized a century ago and horse-drawn carriages were replaced by automobiles. Their replacement was driven not only by new technology, but also by evolving cultural values that emphasized efficiency, sanitation, safety, and animal welfare.

After 50 years of virtually horse-less streets, horse-drawn carriages were reintroduced in Philadelphia during the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 as a tourist attraction. This form of entertainment held an appeal for some tourists, families, and romantics but was controversial from the start and has fallen out of favor in recent years.

» READ MORE: Horses that toiled for Philly Carriage Co. retired to 139-acre sanctuary

The animal welfare problems caused by this practice are serious. Some of these were described by Holly Cheever, a member of the leadership council at the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, in a letter to City Councilmember Mark Squilla expressing support for a legislative ban on horse-drawn carriages in Philadelphia. Carriage horses experience: respiratory impairment resulting from the horses constantly working nose-to-tailpipe; lameness due to the horses’ excessive pounding on paved city surfaces; and heat prostration during extreme temperatures.

Public safety is threatened by horse-drawn carriages. Pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists must share the roads with horses, animals with a highly developed flight drive triggered when startled by an unexpected or threatening stimulus, prompting them to bolt immediately, and resulting in serious accidents. Such collisions have occurred in Philadelphia, and happen regularly in cities that allow the use of horse-drawn carriages. The risk of accidents is only increased by the fact that the horse-drawn carriages often operate in bike lanes.

Philadelphia’s horse-drawn carriage industry has been the subject of academic research projects. A group of doctoral students from the Thomas Jefferson University Strategic Leadership and Complex Systems Leadership programs performed a case study last year, which concluded that as awareness of the problems associated with horse-drawn carriages increases, demand for horse carriage rides will decrease, creating an unprofitable and unsustainable business.

The Jefferson study emphasized market trends, particularly the animal welfare concerns of Millennials — the generation that travels the most and is most likely to spend more money on vacations — and Gen Zers. Eighty-six percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are willing to spend more on their travel if it means the experiences are completely ethical. Tour companies are jumping to respond to such demand by developing animal-friendly policies, such as TripAdvisor, which amended its 2016 policy to “no longer book attractions where animals were forced into unnatural situations for entertainment purposes.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s horse carriage rides remain while New York’s de Blasio pursues ban

Clare Weeden, a senior lecturer in tourism and marketing at the University of Brighton, performed an analysis of Philadelphia tourism in 2020, focusing on the city’s controversial horse-drawn carriages. She concluded that “Resident and tourist awareness of animal welfare means that one day very soon, carriage horses’ existence as part of a commercialized tourism product will become unacceptable for most people.” Dr. Weeden noted that Philadelphia has the opportunity to become a leader in “Responsible Tourism,” setting the standard in tourism market differentiation by promoting a special concern for environmental and animal welfare issues.

As bans on horse-drawn carriages continue to be enacted in cities around the world — including Chicago, Salt Lake City, Montreal, Mumbai, and Amsterdam — electric horseless carriages (e-carriages) are increasingly taking their place. Similar in appearance to 18th-century horse carriages, e-carriages are battery-powered, and offer riders both a historical experience and a cruelty-free activity.

A ban on horse-drawn carriages will require political will. Many concerned citizens have been encouraging Councilmember Squilla, in whose district the carriages operate, to introduce legislation to ban this practice, and urging Councilmember Kathy Gilmore Richardson to include a ban on horse-drawn carriages in the comprehensive road safety legislation that the Environment Committee Transportation Subgroup she leads is discussing.

Horses don’t belong on 21st-century city streets. Just as was the case a century ago, new technology and evolving cultural values are driving a shift that can and must eliminate the use of horse-drawn carriages on Philadelphia streets — once and for all.

Janet White is founder and director of Carriage Horse Freedom, a solution-oriented animal advocacy organization that is working to ensure a legislative ban on horse-drawn carriages in Philadelphia while simultaneously promoting their replacement with electric horseless carriages.