Public transport and the informal sector: Competing visions of Bogotá’s future
The people in Bogota's informal sector and the city government have clashing visions of how informal commerce should play out on public transport and in public spaces. Photo by Nathan Gibbs/Flickr.

The people in Bogota’s informal sector and the city government have clashing visions of how informal commerce should play out on public transport and in public spaces. Photo by Nathan Gibbs/Flickr.

There is an entire ecosystem of informal commerce along Bogotá, Colombia’s streets. Some vendors sit at traffic signals or bus stops, waiting for a bus that’s not too full and not too empty. When they spot a good candidate, they expertly hop on, sometimes slipping through closing doors or onto an already moving vehicle. Once securely on board, they are much like actors on stage as they hawk their products, which range from fruit and cell phone minutes to toys and toothbrushes. They repeat this process 30 to 40 times per day.

Meanwhile, outside on the city’s streets, other informal vendors flock to places where foot traffic is high, or cluster around transport hubs. Between 120,000 –150,000 vendors thrive on the ebb and flow of pedestrians and public transport passengers, catching people as they board the bus or leave work.

The presence of this informal economy has become a regular part of bogotanos’ public transport experience. However, Bogotá, like many cities in the global South, is pushing forward on its path to economic development, a path that requires providing attractive transport options and welcoming public spaces. The city must weigh the comfort of citizens and the orderliness of public spaces against the livelihoods of informal vendors. Urban policy and design must offer solutions that serve the city’s development without disenfranchising communities reliant on informal economies.

Increased regulation gains support

Currently, it appears that momentum is with the regulators. With the creation of the city’s modernized Integrated System of Public Transport (SITP) in 2011, vending was banned from formal public transportation. This was accompanied by similar pushes to restrict street hawking and “walking vendors” in the city. In the locality of Chapinero, 99 municipal operations were implemented in 2013 to remove vendors from the streets, an average of nearly two per week. Vendors, according to Jorge Ceballos, the head of the city’s Institute for Social Economy, should be moved to established markets and out of other public spaces.

The city’s concerns about informal vendors on public transport and in public spaces are numerous. Many transport passengers consider the hawkers a nuisance. Commuters across the globe point to comfort as a key factor in their transport decisions, and cities have an imperative to make public transport as attractive as possible in order to increase ridership. If riders feel uncomfortable or harried when they ride the bus or train, they may opt for different modes of transport, to the detriment of transport systems and vendors alike.

Scholar Michael Donovan points out that “such economic activity creates serious problems for city management, such as sales tax evasion, the obstruction of pedestrian mobility, litter, and the diminishment of the city’s image.” Vendors are accused of being associated with criminals and being a risk to consumers. Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa even stated that “vendors on sidewalks are a sign of lack of respect for the human dignity of pedestrians.”

An increasingly narrow path to economic opportunity

While current planning trends promote banning vendors from transport and public spaces in the name of creating more welcoming public spaces, these exclusionary policies have far-reaching consequences for the livelihoods of the vendors and the economic vibrancy of cities.

Although street vendors are certainly visible in public spaces, they are rendered invisible in official economic statistics. Despite this, in Bogotá, an estimated 59% of workers are in the informal sector and the number of street vendors has increased from 220,000 in 1996 to 558,000 in 2005. Furthermore, a study from the Center for Development Research of the National University of Colombia found that 4,000 vendors and informal performers frequented the city’s bus lines before the switch to the SITP. With the introduction of the SITP, 90% of these informal workers guessed that they would soon become unemployed.

While the impacts of these recent policy changes remain to be fully assessed, city leaders must evaluate them not only in terms of “increased comfort,” but also economic impact, access to goods and services, and impact on livelihoods. Most vendors lack an easy path to more formal employment, and will likely fall further down the economic ladder. Many will continue to sell their goods, legally or not. Forcing vendors deeper into criminality could create even more problems for citizens in public space.

Bogotá wants to keep its sidewalks and parks free for pedestrians and the aisles of its buses free for riders, yet it knows that pushing these vendors out of sight could create a problem bigger than such measures would solve. The voice of all stakeholders, including street vendors, must be heard when framing policy or urban design solutions. Cities worldwide, from Buenos Aires to Mumbai and Amman to Cairo, are facing the same dilemma. Many of these cities are taking new approaches to integrate and regulate informal commerce, efforts that can spur socially and economically sustainable development for Bogotá and other cities of the global South.

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