Roadside vendors are woven into the streetscapes of the world. They invented the American diner, gave Delhi a soundtrack, and tangle with struggles for justice, legitimacy, and prosperity. And in downtown Boston, they’re getting an eye-catching upgrade to become part of a neighborhood’s identity.
For decades, wagon-wheel push carts have rolled around the area, today selling everything from cell phone cases to Patriots hoodies. Now, several silver and lime green carts are rolling in, promising more adaptability to suit each vendor’s needs. The sleek and reconfigurable Modular Urban Vending (or MUV) carts were created by Radlab, a Boston-based design and fabrication firm. “We were excited about taking this old form of retail and attempting to breathe new life into it,” says Ian Carney, one of the designers of the carts.
With MUV carts, vendors can restructure the interiors according to their needs, swapping out shelves, hanging rods, pegboards, and more depending on the season and the goods they’re selling. The components can all be adjusted or changed out for others with common hand tools, so vendors might display T-shirts and hats in the summer on hanging rods or pegboards, and sweatshirts folded on wire mesh racks in the winter. On a spring Sunday, belts hang from the narrow exterior walls of a cart near Downtown Crossing, and phone cases are displayed on a pegboard spanning the interior space and stacked on the shelf at the bottom. The cart’s been through its first New England winter and looks not much the worse for wear. The lime green matches the color of the downtown Boston information booths and tents, lending the carts a sense of place and officiality.
The Downtown Boston Business Improvement District commissioned Radlab to create vending carts that would tie in visually with the brand they’re working to shape downtown. The BID owns the carts and rents them to the street vendors they license to operate in the area.
“It speaks for itself,” says Mohamed Jalloh, the belt and phone accessory vendor. “People didn’t like the old carts.”
The new carts are smaller than the old ones, and because of their weight can be difficult to maneuver, even with two people. But the old carts were beat up after decades of use, and were prone to hosting messy ever-growing piles of merchandise, as vendors struggled to display more and more. The new carts are neater by necessity, because the distinctive green frame is also a strict perimeter. There’s a designated closed storage space built into the side for money, extra stock, or fragile items.
The previous carts were several decades old. “They were having a variety of problems, one being that the carts themselves were really degraded, which resulted in the individual vendors coming up with rough solutions, to put it lightly, to solve the problems,” Carney says. In some cases it became “a bungee-cords-and-tape type situation.”
So far, three MUV carts have hit the streets, and two are currently in operation. This is a pilot program, just one component of what Anita Lauricella, senior planner for the BID, describes in a statement to CityLab as “a coordinated effort that includes aligning our organization’s brand colors with all our street furniture, which includes solar-powered wayfinding pylons, tables, chairs, planters and more.” This comes along with “an ongoing effort to make the area feel welcome, comfortable and welcoming to visitors, employees and residents,” Lauricella says, and the evaluation of the pilot program will influence the future of the vendor program.
For Radlab, the project is part of an ongoing experiment in modular construction. User feedback and iteration were integral to the design process, Carney says. “If we were to do the project again, perhaps we would revisit some of the material choices in an effort to make it perhaps a little bit lighter,” Carney says, and factor in “the abuse these carts would take” as they traversed rough streets and the ramp and door to the storage facility where they’re kept after hours.
CORRECTION: This article formerly stated that the third MUV cart was off the street for repairs. It is not in use for other reasons.