Food trucks, elaborated

Responding to a challenge to my brief expression of puzzlement over why everyone’s suddenly infatuated with food trucks, to the point where some bloggers are gushing that they “can’t see the downside.” (Such expressions of skepticism have been met with exasperated astonishment, as if I’d attacked motherhood and apple pie. Geez, no. I haven’t even cancelled my Time Out subscription.)

First off, I’m not alone here. Plenty of people have already complained about food trucks causing pollution, unfair competition, and blocking parking or loading zones or no-standing fire lanes or crosswalks; this has been extensively covered by media in NYC [Brownstoner, Times, The L] and LA [LAist, Daily News, Daily Press, Times, YoVenice]. Even Mayor Bloomberg agrees [Daily News]: “The little [vendor] stand is now getting to be these enormous trucks with generators… We are moving stores into the street. And they sit there and they park and they take up parking places and they block traffic.” Placid PDX (where most food carts are in corrals on private land, bearing a striking resemblance to Singapore’s “hawker centres” or Hong Kong’s Cooked Food Centres) has seen battles, while DC has already enacted extensive regulations in advance of their arrival.

Second, my complaint isn’t about street food, or fast food, much less food (of course). It’s about trucks, which I’ve never loved. Food trucks, in particular, present a lot of external costs that threaten many great qualities about our urban retail districts: mixed uses, economic and social diversity, walkability, stability, fiscal sustainability, and livability. Street food existed for thousands of years before foam plates, diesel generators, and V8 engines.

I love street food, and adventurous stuff at that; I’ve spent weeks this year subsisting on the stuff: chestnuts in Guangzhou, durian shakes in Singapore, alfajores in Buenos Aires, currywurst in Vienna, scrapple in Philadelphia, lemonade in Glencoe. I’ve done more than most to advance local food in Chicago, as treasurer of its only food co-op, community gardener, champion of a public market in WPB and consistent advocate of its efforts to get food (particularly a coffee stand) and other vendors to enliven the Polish Triangle and Mautene Court, and even a supporter of an outdoor food market in my backyard. Immigrant street food entrepreneurship is even in my blood: my mother and her siblings used to sell Fall River chow mein sandwiches outdoors to lines of factory workers on no-meat Fridays.

Vendors in other cities pay ground rent to transit agencies (as in Vienna, where they’re at many tram stops) or public-market authorities (as in Hong Kong), which in turn pay for services that these businesses use, like trash pickup. These costs aren’t incidental; residents and businesses within the Wicker Park Bucktown SSA already spend $150,000 a year cleaning litter from its sidewalks, even without any food trucks — who will, because they don’t pay local property taxes, use those services and leave local taxpayers footing the bill. I’ve lived in the midst of really trendy neighborhoods like WPB for eight years now. I like having lots of shops and restaurants within walking distance, as long as they largely contain their noise and customers. Vendors with carts or booths or whatever already set up shop by the dozens outside my apartment, at a thronged weekly farmers’ market and with pushcarts selling elotes, ice cream, slushies, and fried dough every day. Food trucks with loud generators and littering crowds idling outside my window is not part of what I signed up for — Bloomberg’s quote above seems to indicate that he also sees the distinction — and noise and trash are not an integral part of city life. (You want more people living in cities? Make them pleasant to live in.) Call this a NIMBY reaction if you will — but recognize that I am no paper tiger, and have on multiple occasions done face-to-face combat against real NIMBYs on behalf of making Chicago more urban, walkable, and livable.

I want to see retail energy (and economic opportunity), round-the-clock mixed uses, and local economic diversity spread throughout the city, instead of hyperconcentrating even further in existing transient activity nodes. Innovative restaurants — started by exactly the same kind of person who might now just start a food truck instead — traditionally have catalyzed new retail districts and extended the activity hours of other districts (since a fixed-premise restaurant has the incentive of sunk capital costs to try extending hours). Merely piling more businesses into every available inch of, say, Clark & Belmont or Milwaukee & Damen won’t help (1) those of us who live nearby and enjoy sleeping on occasion, (2) people who legitimately need to pass through [including thousands of cyclists and pedestrians every day], (3) people who live a little further out who want more options over there. I’d love to live in a city where great food’s available around every corner, instead of falling all over the place at a few overwhelmed intersections.

Of course Chicago should certainly make it easier for people to open new businesses or try new business ideas: Singapore can get a food stall (it has nearly 20,000 on public premises alone) up and running in two weeks. Giving some people privileged access to commercialize choice bits of public space — as food trucks do by showing up around offices at lunch, around nightclubs at midnight, and otherwise feeding off a few little transient pockets of density — isn’t necessary. “Selling” that space at non-market-determined prices — parking meter rates here don’t reflect market clearing prices for retail square footage and in fact don’t accrue to the public — really gives the trucks an unfair edge on non-mobile businesses. (Maybe location franchises could be auctioned, instead of setting license fees by citywide fiat.) Enforcing the proposed rules requiring that food trucks keep their distance from existing businesses will by definition be difficult, and probably a low priority for cops who can’t be bothered with hundreds of existing laws.

Finally, as a cyclist and a pedestrian, I recognize that having more vehicles on the streets — particularly ones plying areas with high levels of foot traffic, and quite likely lots of drunk people stumbling around — will necessarily negatively impact road safety. (Deaths from cars and trucks outnumber gun deaths in much of the north side.) In a world where cities are finally now understanding the value of reducing vehicle traffic and returning public space to people, sending dozens more trucks out there just to feed a passing yuppie whimsy seems like a step back to me.

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4 thoughts on “Food trucks, elaborated

  1. Payton, you have completely changed my mind about food trucks.

    I agree… it should be easier to open a bricks and mortar business in the city.
    Hell, I’d love to see something similar to a hawker center in Chicago. Lack of start-up capital is often a reason why people do food trucks instead of a traditional restaurant. Lowering that barrier to entry with something like a hawker center would be awesome for culinary diversity and experimentation in Chicago. For example, there are some exciting little food stalls in the Metra Market right now, but that concept could be executed so much better.

    You also make great points about the added costs for increased trash and litter pick-ups, trucks further clogging up already healthy business districts, as well as how restaurants are often the catalyst for the retail development of “less desirable” neighborhoods. I hadn’t given those points much thought before, and they’re unassailable arguments against food trucks.
    I will be writing to my alderman. Thank you!

  2. Thanks, Donna. I just blithely wrote this at first, but it’s generate a lot of impassioned debate. I’ve been dreaming of places to put a public market, or even something like Epicurious Garden, somewhere in town — my first thought was at Fulton & Ashland, and later the WPB plan mentions a bike cafe, cinema/pub, and “fresh food depot” as a good mix for Milwaukee, Leavitt & Bloomingdale. A cluster of little eateries could also be a good way to test some advanced-green stuff, like biogas-digester cogeneration.

    I wish that everyone, not just people with trucks, could face less red tape when trying to open up a foodservice business in Chicago. (No need to tell me about it.) In fact, if anyone deserves an extra hand, it’s people on bikes, of course!

    The Sushi Bicycle

    (From Copenhagenize, naturally.) I dunno how he deals with litter, although Denmark didn’t seem to have that problem anyhow.

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  4. I see your point. I’m opening a food truck, but no worries! It will be in Austin. Nice counterpoint to all the yeasayers, though. I like dissenters.

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