Greasy Street Vendors Slip Through City’s Fingers

The city’s street carts are costing its coffers about $5 million a year [PDF] according to a report by the New York City Independent Budget Office. Of roughly $16 million in fines levied in 2008 and 2009, almost $14.9 million went uncollected. That’s a lot of hot dogs. Meanwhile, it costs the city $7.4 million to police the vendors and hand out those uncollected fines.

But the report concedes that the complexity of the rules makes enforcement almost impossible, which is not necessarily a problem with the vendors themselves. It notes that in Manhattan alone there are rules that restrict general merchandise vending on at least 160 blocks, with outright bans on some blocks and limits on hours or days vending is permitted on other blocks.

These rules can change from one block to the next, making it difficult for the police, who have the primary enforcement role when vendors are on the streets, to know what applies and where.

It might also be that police aren’t devoting their best efforts to fighting the scourge of the misplaced taco stand.

But Matt Shapiro, legal director of the Street Vendor Project, said the consequences for vendors who break the rules and don’t pay their fines already lose their licenses. “You cannot keep working,” he said, “that’s a pretty big incentive.”

If we really want to cut down on enforcement costs and congestion, we should allow vendors to operate on more, not fewer streets, he said. “These are extremely hardworking people that are trying to support themselves and their families.” Plus, they soak up college student libations and save lives.

With 3,000 permits available for year-round street vendors and a seemingly endless supply of entrepreneurs vying to catch the next mini-cupcake or waffle-on-a-stick fad, the city could arguably devote more resources to screening who deserves a permit and making sure they follow the rules. But that added layer of bureaucracy might just cost taxpayers more and increase the chances we’ll miss out on gems like these.

Greasy Street Vendors Slip Through City’s Fingers