Street trade is a significant source of livelihood for the urban working poor. Official statistics show that street vending represents as much as 15 per cent of total urban non-agricultural employment, and as much as 25 per cent of total urban informal employment, in countries worldwide. It is especially significant in many African and Asian cities, where 80 per cent or more of total employment in trade is informal.
Residents of low-income urban areas are critically dependent on street vendors as their only source of low-cost goods in small quantities — particularly fruits and vegetables, other fresh food and basic household goods. Where vendors come together to form street markets, they generate demand for additional services and thus jobs: market porters, night watchmen, and recyclers, to name a few. Contrary to conventional wisdom, street vendors in many cities also pay taxes to local governments in exchange for their use of public space.
Residents of low-income urban areas are critically dependent on street vendors as their only source of low-cost goods in small quantities--particularly fruits and vegetables, other fresh food and basic household goods.
Public policy challenges
Street vending has persisted for centuries all over the world, despite a multitude of efforts to curtail it. Its ease of entry offers an option for generating a subsistence income for many, but its potential as an engine of growth also attracts better-off entrepreneurs who can capitalise on the easy access to consumers that working in the streets provides.
But they don't just work in any old streets, and there's the rub: street vendors strategically locate their workplaces in urban areas with steady pedestrian flows, often in central business districts or near crowded transport junctions. In doing so, they rankle big businesses, real estate developers, and other elites who want access to the same space. Overcrowding of vendors in these areas can also exacerbate broader problems in urban governance, such as traffic congestion, solid waste management, and public health risks.
To address these problems, city governments need a way to define and enforce rules governing who gets access to what space at what times. But they won't get anyone to follow those rules if they aren't appropriate to the way the city's retail economy works. And they won't get buy-in from vendors unless vendors are collectively invited to the policy table, and can find a common voice. The challenge here, however, is that most street vendors are self-employed workers who bear all the risks of doing business individually, and often prioritise securing their own individual space over longer-term collective goals.
Innovative approaches to street trade and city governance
There are ways to balance the competing demands of street vendors, formal enterprises, city officials and the general public. Two examples show how it can be done.
In September 2012, India's Minister of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation introduced the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill in the country's lower house of Parliament. This historic bill is one of the only efforts in the world to protect street vendors' rights at the level of national law. The bill follows on a National Policy on Urban Street Vendors, passed in 2004 and revised in 2009.
The national policy, and now the bill, came about after years of struggle on the part of the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) and the Self Employed Women's Asssociation (SEWA), membership-based organisations who became involved in all stages of policy formulation. In contrast to efforts to manage street vending by making it go away, the bill recognises that street trade is here to stay.
Though it is too early to know how the bill will perform once it is made law, it addresses key points where conflicts between vendors and governments typically arise. The bill, modeled after the policy, defines a registration process for vendors, their rights and obligations to work in authorised vending zones, and a statutory bargaining forum called Town Vending Committees in which vendors are represented through their associations. Notably, the bill also allows for evictions, relocations, and confiscations of merchandise, but defines the conditions under which they may take place. Most significantly, the bill recognises street vending as a right and as an urban poverty alleviation measure, while acknowledging the need for local authorities to regulate it.
But they don't just work in any old streets, and there's the rub: street vendors strategically locate their workplaces in urban areas with steady pedestrian flows, often in central business districts or near crowded transport junctions.
In South Africa, Durban's Warwick Junction is the city's primary transport junction, serving an estimated 460,000 people and 38,000 vehicles daily. The junction developed as a chaotic, poorly designed market with congestion and over-trading through the early 1990s. After 1997, city officials established a project designed to work with, rather than against, the thousands of informal traders in the area. This inclusive approach coincided with a movement toward stronger membership-based organisations of street traders who were able to serve as negotiating partners with city officials.
The project's aim was to improve the quality of the urban environment at the junction, with a particular focus on the needs of the urban poor. Its fundamentals were to concentrate on a specific geographic area, to establish inter-departmental coordination within the city government, and to commit to participation and consultation with all stakeholders, including traders. Today, this project is internationally acclaimed as a best practice. Asiye Etafuleni, a local non-profit based at Warwick, continues to support traders in the area and to champion inclusive urban planning and design.
Positive lessons for urban livelihoods
The National Policy in India, and the Warwick project in Durban, have had a considerable impact on urban livelihoods. In Bhubaneswar, India, where the city partnered with member-based organisations to implement the policy, 91 per cent of vendors reported an increase in their income. In Warwick, vendors reported that their incomes had increased by 20 to 200 per cent after the project, and that their legal and physical security had also improved.
The key innovation in both Durban and Bhubaneswar was to recognize that it makes sense to keep street vending in natural market areas of the city. That's where vendors are going to go anyway. By working with vendors' organisations to develop sensible rules, city officials can rely on vendors to help make those rules sustainable and end the need for costly punitive actions.