OPINION: Don’t rush a flawed street-vending bill into law

Council’s proposal would add thousands of food carts before we know if new regulations are working

By Michael Lambert and Ellen Baer

Everyone agrees that the street vending system in New York City is confusing and unfair for everyone involved: small business owners, pedestrians and the vendors themselves. The question now is whether City Council members will perpetuate this broken system or seize the opportunity to make meaningful reforms that allow street vending to continue to thrive, while protecting storefront businesses and ensuring a safe, accessible public realm.

The New York City BID Association, consisting of 72 business improvement districts throughout all five boroughs, represents 85,500 businesses, including 20,000 small storefront businesses which employ more than 1 million people. We welcome the council’s recently introduced proposal to overhaul street vending, and respect the role that street vendors have played for more than a century in the fabric of daily life in New York City. At the same time, we support small business owners who also struggle to support families while paying taxes and conforming to the city’s complex, often onerous laws and regulations.

Specifically, while we applaud the Street Vending Modernization Act’s proposed creation of a dedicated enforcement unit, which is long overdue, we are concerned that the legislation puts the literal vending cart before the figurative horse. The bill authorizes up to 4,200 new permits (600 per year over seven years) before the city and the public can assess the effectiveness of the new enforcement scheme.

In many parts of the city, our streets and sidewalks are already overwhelmed by pedestrians, as well as bike stations, benches, bus shelters and other street furniture. Vendors can be an important component of a lively streetscape, but only within an orderly structure. Such an unprecedented increase in food-vendor permits minimally requires that the tools to properly regulate vending be up and running before any new permits are issued. We also believe that the issuance of additional permits in each of the subsequent six years should be subject to review and approval based on objective criteria that gauge the impact of any increases.

We are also gravely concerned about the bill’s creation of a pilot program designating vending locations. This would give the city’s Department of Transportation wide latitude to change vending restrictions in certain areas by designating special vending zones. As with any other use of public space, this decision should be subject to a formal process for community input, review and approval.

In addition, we strongly oppose new provisions which would impede pedestrian flow by allowing vendors to encroach on areas away from curbs and closer to crosswalks and subway entrances. In the latter case, we feel this is directly contradictory to the admirable goals for pedestrian safety set forth in the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero plan.

And finally, the bill does nothing to address current concerns about the industry’s black market. While vigorous and fair enforcement measures may have an impact, this legislation lacks the teeth to address the exploitation of vendors who illegally rent permits from permit-holders.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make genuine reforms that can benefit everyone. We must not rush into raising the cap on food carts without a careful and robust system to evaluate the impacts and implement any increases in a way that makes street vending safe, sanitary and compliant, while also complementing the many vibrant business districts across the city.

Michael Lambert and Ellen Baer are co-chairs of the New York City BID Association.

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