Street vending is, and always has been, a part of the American economy and a fixture of urban life. Thanks to low start-up costs, the trade has offered countless entrepreneurs—particularly immigrants and others with little income or capital—opportunities for self-sufficiency and upward mobility. At the same time, vendors enrich their communities by providing access to a wide variety of often low cost goods and by helping to keep streets safe and vibrant.
With the booming popularity of food trucks selling creative, cutting-edge cuisines, as well as a sagging economy, interest in street selling is perhaps greater than ever. Nonetheless, complicated webs of regulations in cities nationwide tie up would-be vendors, making it needlessly difficult or even impossible to set up shop in many cities.
Often in intent, and certainly in effect, these regulations do little but protect established brick-and-mortar businesses from upstart competitors. Typically, the greatest proponents of vending regulations like these— and opponents of reforms that would create new vending opportunities— are brick-and-mortar businesses. Moreover, the arguments they make for such protectionist regulations— “unfair” competition, health and safety risks and increased sidewalk congestion—fail to stand up to scrutiny.
Instead of supporting economic protectionism, cities can and should encourage vibrant vending cultures by drafting clear, simple and modern rules that are narrowly tailored to address real health and safety issues. Then they should get out of the way and let vendors work and compete.
In 2008, there were approximately 50 Mobile Food Vendors in the Charlotte area. At the beginning of 2011, there are approximately 7 Mobile Food Vendors left. What changed? The Charlotte City Council changed parts of the zoning ordinance to make it nearly impossible for food trucks to operate within the city limits.
The changes to Sections 12.510 of Charlotte Zoning have resulted in food trucks having to be 400 feet from any residential area, effectively removing the vendors from their customer base, forcing the trucks to close by 9:00 p.m., preventing the food trucks from serving people who get off of work late (not to mention severely cutting into their sales), and making trucks change location ever 90 days, effectively preventing them from having the opportunity to grow a strong customer base.
As local small businesses, these trucks employ people locally, thereby helping to keep unemployment down. Does Charlotte have such a strong job market that we can afford to discourage employers from hiring? Can we afford to forego the tax revenue from these businesses? Most importantly, can we ignore crime statistics from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Dept. which shows there is less violent crime or drug activity where mobile food vendors are located, compared to surrounding areas?
If the Charlotte City Council truly supports local small businesses as much as it says it does, it must support them, rather than prescribe measures that will cause them to go out of business. Mobile Food Vendors deserve the same consideration as any other business in any other part of the city.