By Laila Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hundreds of New York horse and buggy drivers could be on the road to unemployment if a ban of the historic trade makes its way through the city council, a union representing carriage drivers said on Monday.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on a promise to eliminate the carriages, which trace their roots to the days before cars and remain a popular tourist draw, but have attracted increasing criticism from animal-rights advocates in recent years.
De Blasio plans to introduce an ordinance this month that would outlaw buggy rides by mid-2016, news website Capital New York reported on Monday, citing sources that had seen the draft.
"This is awful news to give a working family just before the holidays," said George Miranda, President of Teamsters Joint Council 16. "Three hundred carriage drivers - men and women who have devoted their lives to caring for horses - will be unemployed if this bill is passed."
De Blasio's office confirmed it was planning to phase out horse-drawn buggy rides but declined to discuss specifics of the proposed ordinance.
"We've been considering a range of options that move the horses off our streets, safeguard the animals and protect the livelihoods of the men and women who provide carriage rides," spokeswoman Monica Klein said in a statement.
Under the ordinance, the city would offer carriage drivers training and licensing fee waivers to drive taxis in Manhattan's four neighboring boroughs, Capital reported.
Miranda said many carriage operators had worked with horses their whole lives and did not want to drive taxis.
Three horses have died in traffic accidents in the past 30 years.
De Blasio has sided with animal-rights groups who say the horses are endangered by working on busy urban streets.
Among celebrities, actor Liam Neeson has come out in support of the horse-carriage trade, saying in a letter published by the New York Times in April that it was run humanely and was well-regulated by the city. Comedian Bill Maher blasted the practice as "animal abuse" in an online interview.
Poll results released by Quinnipiac University in June said New Yorkers overwhelmingly backed the horse carriage rides. Carriage tours of Central Park date back to 1858, about a half-century before the number of automobiles surpassed buggies on U.S. roads, according to the Horse and Carriage Association of New York City.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Scott Malone and Mohammad Zargham)