To save the jobs of Central Park’s carriage-horse drivers, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and city council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have developed a plan that involves destroying the livelihood of the city’s pedicab drivers. De Blasio’s elaborate proposal to build—at the city’s expense—a state-of-the-art equine facility in Central Park capable of stabling 70 horses and housing their carriages is meant to mollify animal-rights activists, to whom he’d promised to eliminate the horse-carriage industry entirely. The bar on pedicabs accepting fares within the park south of 86th Street emerged as a last-minute coda to the perverse horse-carriage compromise, and was probably thrown in as a sweetener—or sop—to the Teamsters union, which represents the horse-carriage workers.
Pedicab operators have plied their trade in the city for nearly 15 years. What started out as unauthorized wildcatting by rowdy ex-bicycle messengers has matured into a registered and licensed aspect of the midtown tourist experience. Today, a number of pedicab companies offer tours of Central Park, typically charging around $25 per hour, per person. Viewing pedicabs as competition, the horse-carriage industry sought an outright ban on them in 2005.
At a recent protest outside City Hall, 50 pedicab drivers noisily protested de Blasio’s deal. Sekou Koita, a pedicab driver from West Africa, complained that “the pedicabs cause no problems, we have no accidents. They are picking on us because we are a small business, we have no money.” Pedicab driver Rovshan Charyyev is from Turkmenistan. He studies psychology at City College when he is not pedaling tourists around Central Park for six hours a day. “I don’t understand why they want to take away my job,” he said. “I work very hard, it is an honest business: the fares are posted. I am licensed.”
When asked about the pedicab ban, which would affect some 200 drivers, Mark-Viverito shrugged. “Look, this is a very large city, and there are many opportunities throughout the city,” she said. Her Antoinettish callousness to the pedicab drivers’ plight is stunning, especially since the speaker had praised the imminent passage of a law protecting the jobs of grocery workers for at least 90 days following the takeover of their stores in a merger. That law, she said, “protects hardworking New Yorkers who find themselves in a vulnerable position through no fault of their own.”
Mark-Viverito’s hypocrisy highlights a paradox inherent to the progressive doctrine that she shares with de Blasio. Both claim the moral high ground when ideas are at issue; both are sanguine when it comes to the effects of these ideas on real people. In the name of the noble ideal of affordable housing, for instance, the city uses eminent domain in downtown Brooklyn to evict thousands of middle-class residents. In the name of the noble ideal of school equity, the city fights to shutter charter schools whose mission is to educate impoverished minority youth. And in the name of the noble ideal of kindness to animals—and to salvage a silly campaign promise—the city will put 200 pedicab drivers out of work.
“Maybe if we were in a union like the horse drivers, they wouldn’t do this,” noted Koita. Typically, workers look to unions to protect them against exploitation by their bosses. In the inverted logic of de Blasio and Mark-Viverito’s progressive New York, private workers wish for a union that could protect them from the government.
Photo by Elvert Barnes