A determined drive against food stalls

opinion April 20, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

2,440 Viewed

The BMA is being lambasted for shutting down sidewalk vendors, but restrictions are needed

A plan by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to ban sidewalk food stalls throughout the city has met with a huge public outcry. The groans are coming not just from the vendors and lower-income residents who depend on the inexpensive fare for their daily meals, but also from foreign tourists who view street food as a major attraction of this city, part of its innate charm.

The city’s efforts to “return” the pavement space to pedestrians has met with much praise from residents in general, even if it’s caused aggravation and financial harm for the street vendors who have to find new places to do business or shut down altogether. Most Bangkok sidewalks are narrow, particularly in the inner city. It’s entirely the fault of poor urban planning, the result of two centuries of letting residences and shophouses nudge close to footpaths, so that when the roads were inevitably widened to handle more traffic, the buildings were directly abutting.

Thanks to countless celebrity visitors and foreign YouTube bloggers with sizeable followings, Bangkok street food has been featured regularly and praised highly on the social media. Bangkok is renowned as a street-food destination, one of the world’s street-food capitals. However, the BMA this week vowed to continue implementing its ambitious policy of reclaiming the pavements for pedestrians. Vendors, it said, would be barred entirely from the streets by the end of the year. Reminded that CNN has singled out Bangkok as the world’s top city for street food for two consecutive years, Wanlop Suwandee, chief adviser to the city’s governor, said he appreciated the plaudits, but cleanliness and safety were the BMA’s top priorities.

The ferocity of City Hall’s intent has met with opposition and dismay. Major foreign media outlets have noted the widespread lamenting on the social networks and have tended to agree that Bangkok will just not be the same without its street fare.

In fact the food stalls haven’t been completely removed from the pavements. Many, along with stalls selling clothes and other items, have simply relocated a few metres, to space rented in front of shophouses, which is technically not public space, even if it’s part of a public walkway. Other food-stall owners have moved to nearby rented and roomier roadside properties and resumed business as usual. Clearly there are many others who will need to do the same, 

with BMA-designated markets 

seeming to offer ideal locales.

The thrust should be to allow enough space for pedestrians on pavements. Street vending must be completely banned on narrow sidewalks. There are, however, a lot of pavements in the city that are spacious enough for both foot traffic and food stalls. These areas could continue being shared between pedestrians and street hawkers.

The ban on roadside hawking should be relaxed in key tourist areas like Chinatown and Khao San Road, particularly at night when there’s less vehicular traffic. It would maintain the city’s status as a world street-food capital and a tourist draw. As is the case now, residents and tourists alike could continue enjoying delicious food at night from stalls in these areas.

The authorities should certainly take measures to ensure that street food is safe for consumers. Tourists occasionally complain about food poisoning. There must be proper health requirements and inspections. Also, licences must be required to run roadside food stalls, as they are in other street-food havens like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul. Today anyone can set up a roadside food shop if they have the money to do so, with no need to get a licence or permit.