Downtown Bangkok footpaths have all of a sudden become free of vending stalls thanks to City Hall’s belated but still welcome enforcement of the law prohibiting the obstruction of pedestrian walkways.
Over the past week the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has strictly enforced the law in all areas of the city, following several months of relaxed rules and “easing-out zones” for street vendors. Officials from the BMA’s City Law Enforcement Department have this week remained stationed at different locations to enforce the ban on roadside vending.
Vallop Suwandee, chief adviser to the Bangkok governor, has said the BMA needed to enforce the law requiring that pavements be kept open as pedestrian walkways. “The BMA has no other choice,” he said. “If we don’t take any action, we could be charged with dereliction of duty.”
Most residents by far have welcomed the change. There are no longer any roadside stalls on the pavements of such crowded areas as Siam Square, Pratunam and Silom. Residents and visitors have noticed a marked improvement. Social-media users have been posting before-and-after photos to show how the sidewalks are now pedestrian-friendly with the clutter of roadside stalls removed.
What we are seeing is an excellent example of how daily life can be made easier if the law is strictly enforced, and without exceptions being made.
Until now, pedestrians had to carefully negotiate their way between long rows of stalls occupying space meant for smooth and safe strolling, their path further obstructed by knots of people examining the merchandise and making purchases at the stalls. Anyone seeking faster progress was forced to leave the sidewalk and walk on the street along the kerb, at risk of being struck by passing vehicles. Quite literally adding to the mess, vendors tended to be less than conscientious about cleaning up the refuse left over from the day’s operation. The rubbish left behind was a guaranteed nightly eyesore that harmed the city’s image among visitors.
The BMA ban naturally angered the vendors, who depended on their illicit trade for an income. Protests were staged in the places where they’d been operating for years, but to no avail. Residents and legitimate shopkeepers, fed up with the obstruction, the crowds and the rubbish left behind, could hardly be expected to show sympathy. And the city had had enough of the illegal hawking, which posed a hazard to public safety that left it vulnerable to lawsuits. Rather than feeling sorry for vendors losing their source of income, citizens celebrated the “liberation” of the pavements.
Most of these street vendors need not be affected by the ban. If they don’t believe the alternative locations offered by the BMA are viable for their business, there are other places close enough – shophouses whose owners are willing to rent space out front to hawkers.
If there is a downside to all of this for city residents as a whole, it is the scepticism that greeted the dramatic change along the sidewalks. While the more trusting expect the ban to remain enforced without bias or bribes, many observers are waiting to see “how soon” the kerbside markets creep back into the same lucrative positions as before.
It would thus be encouraging to see the BMA cap this apparent success by keeping motorcycles and parked cars off the footpaths too. Sidewalks are not legal shortcuts for motorbikes dodging the traffic jams, and they’re not parking spaces for cars and pickups. To forestall such practices, pavement poles might be needed, allowing only enough room for pedestrians and perhaps bicycles.
Better still, though, let’s see more tough enforcement of the laws already in place to keep people safe and unmolested.