Make Seattle More Welcoming to Street & Sidewalk Vending

Customers queue up to a food truck on on Eastlake Avenue East in South Lake Union. MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

By Michael Bindas | The Seattle Times

Customers queue up to a food truck on on Eastlake Avenue East in South Lake Union. MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

ESPECIALLY in this economy, government ought to be eliminating barriers to entrepreneurship. The Seattle City Council is therefore right to consider a bill that would ease the city’s prohibitive regulation of street and sidewalk vending.

Unfortunately, the proposal does not go far enough. Worse, some of its provisions — particularly those designed to insulate brick-and-mortar businesses from honest competition — violate the state constitution.

Mobile vending is quintessential bootstraps entrepreneurship. It provides economic opportunity to those who need it most: low-income, low-capital entrepreneurs; immigrants; the unemployed. Vending enriches the cultural fabric of a city and increases the diversity of goods available. And vendors provide “eyes on the street” that can deter crime in a city’s neighborhoods.

Despite the many benefits, it is currently near impossible to earn an honest living as a vendor in Seattle. Vending curbside from food trucks is banned, and sidewalk vending is restricted to a handful of items: espresso, hot dogs, popcorn and flowers.

The bill the City Council is now considering would make it easier for vendors to ply their trade. Among other things, it would authorize some curbside food trucks and expand the types of food that can be sold from sidewalk carts. So far, so good.

The problems begin with the required permits, which would be tied to fixed locations. That means vendors would have to remain stationary, unable to respond to customer demand.

To make matters worse, the bill would treat those who vend to earn a living more restrictively than those who vend to raise money for nonprofit groups. Vending to support a family is no more a threat to the public health and safety than vending to support a nonprofit. If rules can be relaxed for nonprofits, they should be equally relaxed for entrepreneurs.

Perhaps most problematic are the proximity restrictions the bill would impose around brick-and-mortar businesses: Food vendors would be banned within 50 feet of restaurants; flower vendors, within 50 feet of flower shops.

These restrictions will severely limit the parts of the city in which vendors can operate. In many neighborhoods, there is a restaurant every few storefronts. Vendors would effectively be shut out of these neighborhoods — the very areas likely to have the most pedestrian activity and, thus, demand for vendors.

But even more obnoxious than the effect of the proximity restrictions is their justification: According to the city’s Department of Transportation, they are aimed at “protecting the interests” of brick-and-mortar establishments, which “may feel threatened” by vendors.

Government is supposed to regulate to protect the public health and safety, not to protect favored businesses from competition. In fact, the Washington Supreme Court has held that laws designed to prevent lawful competition are unconstitutional.

What’s more, proximity restrictions like those Seattle is considering have met a grim fate in other cities. A Los Angeles ordinance banning food trucks near restaurants was held unconstitutional by a California court, which called the ordinance what it was: a “naked restraint of trade.” And when my organization, the Institute for Justice, challenged a proximity restriction in El Paso earlier this year, the city quickly capitulated and repealed it.

To be sure, Seattle’s proposed reforms would improve the status quo. But with a few tweaks to the bill, the City Council can promise even more vibrant vending activity and, more importantly, respect for the constitutional rights of hardworking entrepreneurs who want nothing more than the chance to earn an honest living.