The district's new sidewalk vending rules are scheduled to take effect May 15. City officials say the new regulations will reduce congestion on sidewalks, protect consumers and improve sales-tax collections. But about 200 of the vendors protest that the new rules are designed to protect established businesses from competition and will run some vendors out of business. They have joined a union that has filed a lawsuit in federal court to block the new regulations.
Feelings run high on this subject. Some say all vending stands are untaxed eyesores that should be swept from the streets. Others believe there should be no restraints at all on sidewalk enterprise. Neither extreme is correct.
One cannot quarrel with the District government's desire to keep a reasonable rein on sidewalk vending. Some of the new rules, for instance, are meant to bring the city more revenue through higher license and bonding fees. Another requires 12 feet of uncluttered sidewalk on downtown streets. Still another will restrict sidewalk vending to 1,450 downtown spots and to another 733 in residential and roadside locations. By and large, those changes seem fair.
Other parts of the new regulations, however, do not seem fair. In setting out to cut the current 5,200 vending licenses by about 1,000, the District offers no equitable way to determine which vendors get to stay in business and which get the boot. Some observers suggest auctioning the spaces. Others would give priority on licenses to those who work full-time as vendors. The city is obligated to find an equitable solution.
It is all right to make vendors keep their stands clean and neat. But it is overkill to require carts of pressure-treated lumber and color schemes regulated right down to the percentages of coverage and which parts of the stands should display the main color. The regulations also establish merchandise limits, but in a way that seems arbitrary in some areas and contradictory in others. Hand-knit items and leather goods are permitted. Luggage is not. Presumably, there are a lot of knit-and-leather handbags and shoulder bags. Are they luggage? Stuffed toys are okay. Just about any other kind of toy isn't. Household appliances, which might be unsafe, will not be allowed. Pottery, which could be just as unsafe, is allowed.
City officials deserve some credit for not buckling under the pressure of established businesses to regulate sidewalk vending out of existence. But they have not solved all the problems of trying to regulate a kind of commerce that by its nature has no simple and clearcut limits. They could still do a better job in writing the regulations.