Why Shouldn’t Mobile Vendors Be Allowed to Move To Where The Customers Are?

I’m glad to see The El Vee is properly incensed over Bethlehem’s freedom-crushing street vendor regulations, but I’d like to try to persuade him to come over to my side on the issue of freedom of motion:

We discussed this issue at length in our previous op-ed, Weenie Wars.  With the exception of being allowed to roam around at-will, we agree point-by-point with fellow blogger Jon Geeting.  What’s the point of adopting an ordinance and then immediately after allowing an exception to the only person the law applies to?  It’s idiotic and a waste of time [...]

Why can’t we be progressive?  It seems like so many people in this area are resistant to massive change.  We’re big fans of change.  Although we certainly do bitch about it and make it a point to make our thoughts known on this site, change is a good thing.  Rotting fields or casino/restaurants/music venue/shops?  That’s a no-brainer.  Why CAN’T we have lots of street food?  Why CAN’T we be like other big cities?  There’s a cocktail cart in Portland for chrissakes.  That’s right.  A cocktail cart.  Meaning one of Portlandia’s many hipsters can stroll up on their fixie and grab a martini.  Right there.  On the street.  Man, how much would that piss off the Funhouse owners?

PA liquor laws being what they are, the cocktail cart boom probably isn’t going to materialize until me and TEV are old men.

But back on topic, one of the main reasons Bethlehem is going to fall far short of TEV’s goal of having ”lots of street food” is that rules force potential street vendors to get approval from brick-and-mortar business owners if they want to set up shop on the sidewalk in front of their stores.

The point I want to make about this is that you don’t have to be a monster like Tina Kowalski to be averse to having a food cart operating on the sidewalk in front of your store. There are plenty of perfectly good reasons to be worried about this.

Small business owners tend to be fairly risk averse, and given the opportunity to choose between an open sidewalk and a street vendor, I would expect most of them to choose the open sidewalk. Not because they hate vendors, but just because it’s the less risky option. Maybe they’re worried about people loitering. Maybe they don’t want to smell the food. Maybe they think there are too many food vendors on the block and they don’t want another one. There are plenty of non-crazy reasons somebody would say no.

But that means you could potentially have a situation where every store owner says no, and then you just don’t have any street food vendors in your central business district. Maybe you think that’s not likely, but my point is that it’s possible under the law.

I don’t think TEV would find that situation much more fair than if the city banned all food carts. Even though street vendors would *technically* be allowed to operate in the central business district, in practice they’d be banned.

I think the appropriate solution to the problem of a de facto *private* ban on street food is to take the veto power away from store owners and allow street food vendors to open as-of-right. It shouldn’t depend on the good will of shop owners whether somebody is allowed to open a business on the block, especially if that business is a direct competitor.

Here’s another argument for freedom of motion for street vendors.

Suppose a vendor gets permission to open a taco stand next to the Bethlehem Skate Plaza. Most of the time business is pretty steady because kids are always skating over there.

But then you have an event like Spring on 4th, where they set up some ramps for kids to skate on New Street and 4th. Skate Plaza’s going to be pretty dead that day, so business is going to be slow. But why should it be?

Why shouldn’t that vendor be allowed to take the taco stand over to Spring on 4th and sell tacos there instead? The stand is mobile, after all, so there’s no physical obstacle to having a better sales day. Indeed, it could be a great sales day, what with all the extra foot traffic.

I would argue that the option to move to where the customers are should always be available to mobile vendors. At SteelStacks there are going to be free outdoor music events pretty much all the time. There’s rarely going to be a good reason for a mobile vendor to have a slow sales day.

This is how it works in other cities that have more food trucks and carts and whatnot. Vendors use Facebook and Twitter to tell their customers where they’re going to be throughout the day, and they move around to where the crowds are.

I think that’s awesome. TEV and I don’t just want to see Chris Morales stop getting hassled, we want to see A LOT of street food. The best way to attract more entrepreneurs into this sector, in my view, is to increase the profit margins that vendors can earn by removing barriers to entry and restrictions on where they can sell. The ability to move to where the crowds are would greatly increase the return on starting this kind of business, and more people would do it.

The specific change I would like to see would be to remove restrictions on where vendors can locate, as long as they leave 5 feet of sidewalk open at all times for pedestrians. That would address legitimate concerns about vendors’ proximity to businesses and foot traffic flow while precluding the possibility of private bans on vending.

Comments

  1. The El Vee says:

    I actually find it completely fair for someone to say they don’t want a cart on their property, even if it meant EVERYONE did so and there were no food carts. It’s my opinion that they should depend on the good will of shop owners to decide if they want to allow someone on their sidewalk.

    It’s true, I do want to see street food everywhere. I just can’t agree with letting them go anywhere. If I was a business owner I would be extremely, Kowalski-style pissed if I couldn’t do anything about someone on my own sidewalk. Based on what the asst. city solicitor says, it’s a join ownership sort of deal with the city: “Joseph M. Kelly, Assistant City Solicitor, responded that there is a right for people to walk in front of her house if there is a sidewalk there without her permission and if it was purely her property she could put a fence there like you would do in your backyard. He said streets and sidewalks are designated as public rights of way and the City is obligated to maintain them and by statute the obligation is put on the landowner to maintain that sidewalk, if it cracks, to remove rubbish, and to remove snow within a period of time. He said if for whatever reason the City lays out in its plan that there is a roadway that is never opened and it never becomes a roadway, that land goes back to the owner after 21 years. Attorney Kelly noted that once it has been opened as a public right-of-way it would be a shared ownership between the City and the landowner.”

    If that’s the case, then the property owner should have a say in what’s done with their property, plain and simple. If the onus is on you to maintain the property and a vendor is there causing problems (not saying this is the case, but it easily could be), then you’re forced to clean up after them even if you don’t want them on your sidewalk. There’s just too much wrong with the scenario for it to be feasible to me.

    To each their own.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Like I said on Twitter a few weeks ago, this seems to be a problem of poorly-defined property rights. With the exception of snow removal, which would be impractical, I think the property rights should be defined more strictly so that sidewalks are entirely public property and things like fixing cracks and cleaning up litter are the city’s responsibility. Could be accomplished through more enforcement of littering fines, more trash receptacles and something like the Easton Ambassadors. Even if you don’t totally agree with that, there should be some way to define the property rights and responsibilities so as not to give shop owners veto power over vendors.

      The scenario you describe in the last paragraph doesn’t seem to be a problem in other cities that allow freedom of motion. Even if you occasionally encountered a problem like that, the costs would seem to me to be far outweighed by the benefits of having a lot more street vendors.

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