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Advocating for Equitable Street Vending Policies

By Lacey Sigmon

"Vendor" [Midtown Manhattan] by Dave Doe. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Street vending is an essential type of street commerce which can be informal or permanent, but typically takes place on streets, sidewalks or adjacent to bodies of water in impermanent structures such as trucks, carts, boats, or on tables. The barriers to becoming a “legal” vendor can be high, especially in the United States, but there are examples in other countries where local policies have allowed street vending to flourish. While planners and policy makers must engage with policies which protect local businesses from commercial gentrification, successful examples are few and far between. Street vending is an existing avenue of low-barrier-to entry business ownership which, under the right policy environment, is not threatened by rent increases and displacement that brick and mortar establishments face. For progressive planners, street vending is a particularly important type of street commerce to incorporate into the conception of a more just city.

Street Vending and Economic Livelihood Around the World

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, street vendors around the world were hit hard by the institution of policies to stem the spread of COVID-19. Vendors in many places were not considered “essential workers” and their informality made it difficult for street vendors to adopt new safety protocols (due to lack of access to water and hand sanitizer). This delegitimized their importance when it came to government aid. Further, the change in consumer behavior (social distancing, primarily) compromised what makes street vending so successful (crowds). In New York, street vendors experienced devastating financial and health impacts from COVID-19, where many saw a significant drop in customers with stay-at-home orders in typical high-density vending districts in Manhattan, where there were also high virus rates.

While COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on street vendors, as it has on all aspects of society, street vending as a pathway to economic recovery, especially for those most impacted by the pandemic, is promising. Especially in light of the continued need to be cautious about indoor dining, the policy environment is primed for expansion and fostering of street vending.

Street commerce and vending flourishes when public policy supports it. Organization and advocacy has been necessary to achieve amenable policies. In 1995, street vendors across the world met in Bellagio, Italy and signed a declaration which called on their governments to establish street vending policies. Organization was key in the establishment of the National Association of Vendors of India (NASVI), which was born from the need to organize in order to ensure that political institutions, including planners and academics, saw street vendors as legitimate.

In addition to local policies that legitimize the existence of street vendors, policies which make it easier to become a street vendor are key. In 2014, a survey of street commerce conducted by Sevtsuk in Solo, Indonesia and described in the book “Street Commerce: Creating Vibrant Urban Sidewalks,” found that only around a quarter of street vendors paid rent on their space. The remainder either operated a mobile business without fixed costs, or operated out of a residential structure where they resided or which they owned. The mixture of fixed and non-fixed street vendors led to vibrant street commerce. This density of street commerce is not typically found in US cities. However, the impermanence of the presence of these vendors has not led to a complete lack of government oversight. Instead, the Solo government has developed a taxation model to match the impermanent nature of vending in the city. Tax collectors ride around on scooters and collect taxes from all vendors who are selling that day. Solo is a good example of how embracing the impermanent nature of street vending can aid in the design of policies which do not hinder vendors’ success. Mayor Jokowi, who later became Indonesia’s president, dedicated public resources to renovating open air markets and set policies which banned the construction of modern retail establishments at a certain distance from the markets to help preserve the success of street vendors. This is the type of equitable policymaking that currently seems farfetched in the US but is essential to furthering equity in cities.

Street Vending in the Carceral State New York City is a prime example of how a city where street vending could flourish, has been tamped down through poor decision making and unnecessary levels of regulations that aim to protect brick and mortar business interests. In January of this year, New York City Council voted to increase the number of vendor permits by 4,000, increasing from the 3,000 total permit cap that had been established for many years. As part of the same law, a separate enforcement unit for street vending was also established, taking street vending enforcement out of the purview of the NYPD. While, on its face, this new law appears to be a step in the right direction for increasing access to street vending in New York and reducing harm against street vendors, in reality there are still examples of the NYPD enacting violence against street vendors. The built-in enforcement of street vending (typically $500 tickets per infraction) have dire consequences on street vendors. Furthermore, even with the increase in the number of permits, the demand for these permits far outweighs the maximum number of permits, and therefore a black market for permits with astronomical costs ($20,000 every two years), or vendors who do not have the means to pay black market prices chose to set up their business without a permit, facing further financial and potentially violent consequences.

In Los Angeles, street vendors have faced an equally difficult history of policy making around street vending. Street vending was banned in the 1930s in downtown Los Angeles and nearby business districts, largely to support the establishment of roads for the use of cars. A further city-wide ban on street vending was passed in 1974, but temporarily vetoed by the Mayor, until 1980, when it was banned again. Later, in the 1990s, city council established a legal means for street vending on sidewalks in certain areas, but developed such a convoluted process to establish allowable districts that it wasn’t until the end of the decade that the first district was established in MacArthur Park. Borne out of the advocacy of vendors, especially a group of women vending in the streets of Boyle Heights who experienced the violent enforcement of anti-street vending policies, street vending was decriminalized in 2017, with food establishments following two years later. However, despite being decriminalized, the city did not establish a permitting process ahead of the decision to legalize street vending, creating a temporary increase in the number of vendors, which since 2020 has begun to decline as the city established a similar enforcement agency to New York in order to impose compliance with vending regulations. With the quick and chaotic implementation of new street vending policies in LA, it's not surprising to find out that the budget for enforcement is in the millions, while the budget for educating vendors on acquiring a permit and vending requirements is around $350,000.

There are now two motions pending in LA City Council that could incorporate criminal citations back into LA’s street vending policies. The first policy would allow the enforcement of county health code on street food vendors and the second would target sidewalk vendors for criminal citations for blocking sidewalks under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At the same time, other city council members are pushing a resolution that would help create a pathway for vendors to obtain health permits without creating unreasonable barriers for doing so. The debate that is currently occuring in LA perfectly captures how policies, seemingly to achieve the same goal of establishing food safety regulations, can do so with such consequentially different approaches. While one aims to rethink health code in order to create room for street vendors, the other aims to use public health policy as a means to making street vending more difficult, and possibly criminal.

Protest and advocacy in light of over-regulation of street vendors can be found not just in the US, there are examples around the world of street vendors protesting (such as, Bhubaneshwar and Bangkok) in order to bring about a policy framework which works for the informal nature of street vending and provides a pathway to its success in these cities.

Next Steps

As planners and policymakers shape city policy and space in light of the impacts of COVID-19, the near consistent extreme weather events caused by climate change, and the violence of the state, it's imperative to advocate for equitable access to food, goods and economic livelihood. Street vending is an essential means to this end, and to get there it requires advocacy. Planners must be part of the conversation to reframe street vending from a nuisance to a crucial tool to improve the lives of those who live in communities. Below is a short (not exhaustive) list of organizations and resources that provide information, advocacy and have ultimately been imperative to changing policy.

Resources for more information:

Lacey Sigmon is an Urban Planner who works in storm recovery in New York and Texas. She received her Masters Degree from the University of Michigan in Urban Planning with a focus on housing and community development. She received her undergraduate degree from the New College of Florida in Chinese Language and Literature and International Studies.




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