Los Angeles, CA: L.A. Leaders Move to Legalize Street Vending

Photo:cd waltarrrrr evers/Flickr/Creative Commons License

By   |  KCET

Photo:cd waltarrrrr evers/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Photo:cd waltarrrrr evers/Flickr/Creative Commons License

If you ever happen to visit Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula — and I highly recommend you do so, because it’s awesome — one of the first things you’ll notice on your bus trip from the Cancun airport to wherever your final destination is, is the lack of fast food corporations. Oh, sure, you’ll see an occasional McDonald’s or Burger King or maybe a Subway scattered here and there. But venture outside of the tourist-infested city — which, again, I highly recommend doing so, because that’s where all of the cool stuff is — you’ll understand why those franchises are unnecessary:

Everywhere you look is food!

Every block houses three or four mom-and-pop taquerias, all of which look exactly the same: Low ceiling room in a brick structure, small grill in the back, dozens of red plastic chairs tucked into red plastic tables, a stray dog lingering in the corner waiting for scraps, and more Coca-Cola logos than a professional sports stadium. (Evidently, Pepsi was the choice of nogeneration down south.) And in between these taquerias? Dozens upon dozens of rickety, no-frills food carts grilling up something or other. It’s at these tiny stands where you can get a taco for five pesos (roughly 40 cents) or a burrito for 12 (you can do your own math here, but spoiler: it’s still super cheap). Mexicans love their food, and they love it simple and cheap and quick.

It’s no wonder, then, that residents of L.A., with its heavy Latino population, have a lot of the same desires. Cheap and easy food they can get on the street. The problem, though, is that the long arm of the law stands in the way.

Street vending in L.A. is illegal. If you open up a stand on the street without the proper permits, you are a criminal. And while there have been plenty of attempts over the years to change the laws, they’ve generally met enough resistance to stop the movement in its tracks. Until now.

As this great piece at the New York Times details, the mentality of L.A. officials in regards to street vending has shifted substantially, to the point where official legalization may be just around the corner. The argument for the move is simple:

[L]egalizing street food would make it safer for consumers, because taco stands would be subject to inspections by the county Health Department. Income from city vending permits or fees could fund tougher police enforcement against illegal sellers.

Stricter regulation and more money going to the city is a win-win, right? Not entirely:

Past attempts to legalize street vending failed because most of the vendors decided the regulations were too onerous, and they were better off staying on the black market.

Considering that many of the vendors don’t speak English, this isn’t all that shocking. If you were asked to sign a permit that you didn’t understand, would you just jump in without worry? Or would you just ignore it and go about your business like usual? So, if a changing of the law isn’t going to actually end the existence of black market food trucks, what’s the solution? It’s actually pretty easy:

Just stop enforcing the law.

A few years back, I happened upon a phone-in segment with L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck. A question was brought up regarding why the police enforce certain laws over others, and Beck’s answer was refreshing in its honesty. Essentially, his role as Police Chief is more accountant than anything else. He’s given a certain budget, and his job is to determine how best that budget is used, a simple cost/benefit analysis determined by the seriousness of certain crimes. (Take, for instance, L.A.’s law that one cannot bathe two babies in the same tub at the same time. It’s on the books, but the harm caused by breaking it doesn’t really necessitate, say, a police officer being assigned to every baby in the city.) So, in essence, Beck decides what laws get enforced.

Which is to say: Charlie Beck! Stop enforcing the law!

Street food is already nearly universally accepted, with the lone dissenters being restaurant owners not enjoying having to pay rent while scofflaws don’t have to. But the rest of us? We love it! If we didn’t, we wouldn’t eat it. So, let the free market dictate the legalization of street food and use your limited budget to stop more serious crimes. There’s enough of them to go around.