Institute for Justice · October 6, 2015

Arlington, Va.—Street vending is as American as apple pie. Every day, tens of thousands of vendors make their living on America’s streets and sidewalks, selling everything from hats to gourmet tacos. Vending has become a multimillion dollar industry, but reliable data about vendors and their economic contributions have been hard to come by—until now.

A new study released today by the Institute for Justice offers an in-depth look at the everyday life of America’s licensed street vendors, the economic impact they have on their communities and the daily challenges they face.

In Upwardly Mobile: Street Vending and the American Dream, IJ surveyed 763 licensed street vendors in the 50 largest cities in the U.S and found:

  • 96 percent of large-city vendors own their own businesses.
  • Street vending creates jobs; 39 percent of vendors employ full- or part-time workers.
  • Full-time vendors work five-and-a-half days per week, on average, and work long hours—averaging 11 to 12 hours per day.
  • Full-time and year-round vendors generate profits of about $35,000 per business and take home less than $18,000 in personal income.

Upwardly Mobile also conducted an in-depth economic analysis of the financial impact vending had in New York City in 2012. In just that city, street vendors generated an estimated $71.2 million in local, state and federal taxes and contributed almost $293 million to the local economy.

“Our findings demonstrate that street vending is a diverse and vibrant industry that gives people the ability to support themselves, their families and their communities,” said Dr. Dick Carpenter, director of strategic research at IJ and author of the report. “Cities that restrict or flat-out ban street vending are shutting out the economic benefits the industry brings—jobs, taxes and more goods and services.”

Unfortunately, as the report shows, street vendors across the nation face an array of laws that make it difficult—and sometimes impossible—to earn a living. Vendors in Los Angeles, Miami and New York City face especially burdensome regulations. Los Angeles has a thriving food truck industry but completely bans sidewalk vending. Miami bans vendors from public parking lots and street parking spaces, and it prohibits them from staying in one place any longer than it takes to make a sale. In both cities, vendors are threatened with high fines and jail time. New York City caps the number of vending permits and licenses, which has led to a flourishing black market for permits.

In addition to the report, IJ has filed a lawsuit in San Antonio, Texas, challenging the city’s vending restrictions. San Antonio bans food trucks from operating within 300 feet of every restaurant, convenience store and grocer in the city. The law applies whether a food truck vends on private property or public property. This has created thousands of 300-foot “no-vending zones” all over town. The Alamo City is using government power to play favorites.

“When San Antonio and other cities enact laws that harm street vendors in order to protect brick-and-mortar establishments from competition, they are violating vendors’ constitutional right to earn an honest living free from unreasonable government interference,” said Bert Gall, a senior attorney at IJ who directs its National Street Vending Initiative, a nationwide effort to vindicate the right of street vendors to earn an honest living. “A victory for vendors in San Antonio will help vendors across the U.S. who face similar restrictions in their cities.”

“Vendors are exactly the type of hard-working entrepreneurs that cities should encourage,” explained Carpenter. “All it takes for cities to unleash the full economic potential of vendors is to do away with outdated and anticompetitive regulations, opening up streets and sidewalks to vending entrepreneurs pursuing their American Dream.”