Councilwoman pulls the reins on proposal to ban horse-drawn carriages

SAN ANTONIO – One of the two city council members who spearheaded a push to ban horse-drawn carriages is changing her tune.

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Phyllis Viagran (D3) filed a council consideration request (CCR) in November 2022, asking city staff to develop a plan to phase out the use of horse-drawn carriages. They also asked for a program to transition the horse carriage workforce over to pedicabs and electric carriages by the end of 2023.

Now that the council is finally considering the proposal, though, Viagran signaled she’s open to keeping the industry in place downtown.

The Southeast Side councilwoman submitted a written statement to the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, which discussed the 18-month-old proposal Tuesday.

“As a longstanding advocate for small, minority-owned businesses, I want to work with the five companies that employ over 115 workers collectively to ensure they have as many options as possible, such as continuing education for their staff through Ready to Work or finding creative ways for riders, operators, and horses to continue to coexist in the downtown footprint,” Viagran wrote.

Viagran referenced the council-appointed Transportation Advisory Board’s vote on May 23 to encourage the council to keep the carriages downtown and said her chief of staff had visited with the companies, too.

Ban supporter’s arguments revolve around two main points: animal welfare and general safety in the increasingly congested downtown streets.

Carriage operators have strongly denied any claims their animals are mistreated. They have said they would be willing to compromise on traffic-related concerns by cutting their hours, including all daytime shifts, Monday through Friday.

McKee-Rodriguez has previously mentioned possibly moving the carriages’ operations to an alternate location outside of downtown. However, he clarified his position to reporters after Tuesday’s meeting, saying he supports a relocation as a transition step, not a solution.

“So my position has always been that we should have a total ban of horse-drawn carriages in San Antonio,” the East Side councilman said. “My hope is that a part of that is a just transition that we look at opportunities to phase out, to find other means to operate in the meantime until we get to that.”

Carriages have been licensed in San Antonio since 1865. There are currently five permitted companies, which can each put five carriages on downtown streets, within two miles of City Hall.

The city prohibits carriage operations when temperatures reach 95 degrees and restricts hours on days with bad air quality.

The San Antonio Police Department, which enforces ordinances on vehicles for hire, presented preliminary research on Tuesday comparing San Antonio’s carriage ordinance to other cities. It also included a list of cities where the carriages have been banned, including Chicago, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City and Palm Beach.

SAPD Assistant Director Rick Riley told council members they had discussed possible alternate location sites, including HemisFair, the Pearl and Brackenridge Park.

Carriage operators, though, have no desire to move.

“I mean, tourism is downtown and that’s that’s where the market is,” said Art Martinez De Vara, an attorney representing four of the five carriage companies. “And so I think limiting to any one of those three – or all three – would effectively bankrupt the carriage companies.”

The proposal is rolling forward, though, even if it’s not clear what form it will eventually take.

The Transportation & Infrastructure Committee voted unanimously to have city staff present a draft plan for phasing out carriages at its August meeting. In comments just before the vote, Chairman John Courage (D9) said, “that maybe a couple of options that will be discussed in that kind of a plan.”

In the meantime, Riley said the city would continue to research other cities’ regulations, would meet with stakeholders, present the issue to the Animal Care Services advisory board, and look at the roadworthiness of electrical, horseless carriages.

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