If there are officials and business people who frown on the District's sidewalk merchants because they consider them to be nuisances and a drain on established shops, then a stroll in mid- town Manhattan is in order. The merchants don't stand politely behind their products there. It is not unusual for one to follow you for half a block as he tries to persuade you to buy his wares. On another corner, one might find a young man hawking sophisticated calculators for $15 apiece as he scans the streets for police who might be curious about how he acquired them.
For the most part, the men and women who sell their products on Washington's streets are an orderly group who do not harass pedestrians. For the most part, their vending stands are orderly and do not inhibit movement on the city's sidewalks. One then must wonder why city officials have decided to make their way of earning money so much more difficult. New sidewalk vending regulations began this week. Some of those new standards, such as raising license and bonding fees and placing limits on the amount of space vendors can take up on sidewalks, are reasonable. New regulations prohibiting stands near Metro subway entrances, fire hydrants and sidewalk grates will prevent congestion at those locations. But sidewalk selling is hardly a lucrative profession, and some new rules, such as those requiring specially made carts of pressure- treated lumber and elaborate color schemes, are unreasonable. One particular merchant who sells jewelry said that the new cart cost $700. City officials could have come up with regulations on aesthetically pleasing stands without posing such strict and unnecessary guidelines.
Other regulations severely, and perhaps arbitrarily, limit the kinds of goods that sidewalk merchants can sell. Most manufactured goods will not be allowed, but handbags, handmade items, umbrellas, souvenirs and ready-to-eat foods are allowed. The District has also decided to slash the number of vending licenses it will approve, from 5,200 to about 4,200.
Established businesses may have some legitimate concern over the possibility that sidewalk vendors have been taking away some of their sales. The city also has a right to determine what street vendors can and cannot do. City officials are giving the vendors 30 days to comply with the new rules, but the standards go too far in regulating people who might be hard- pressed to find another way to earn a living.