Should Cities Drive Food Trucks Off the Streets?

Food trucks in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta. Photographs by Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times

By Kim Severson | The New York Times

Food trucks in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta. Photographs by Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times

URBAN food trends, as delicious as they are, can have a dark side.

Backyard chickens offer fresh eggs and give the citybound a way to touch the country. But with them can come all manner of tricky diseases and noisy roosters.

An edible schoolyard is a terrific idea, until budget cuts and waning volunteer interest turn the plot into a tangle of weeds, forcing someone to explain to second graders why their beloved tomato plants died.

Now comes the modern food truck, where innovative cooks on a budget drive their kitchens around searching for what appears to be an endless supply of diners with Twitter accounts willing to line up for Korean tacos and salted caramel cupcakes.

What could be wrong with that? For some, plenty. From Los Angeles to New York, and Portland, Ore., to Atlanta, cities are wrestling with a trend now writ large on their streets, trying to balance the cultural good that comes with a restaurant on wheels against all the bad.

Yes, the trucks offer entrepreneurs a way to get started in the restaurant business. Yes, they add jobs and money to a city. The food is often innovative, relatively inexpensive and convenient. For those willing to stand in line and eat from a paper plate, there is usually a warm personal exchange when the meal is passed from chef to diner.

But many restaurateurs are sick of seeing competition literally drive up outside their windows.

“It’s ignorant of people in the community to think that buying from food trucks instead of from local restaurants doesn’t hurt the community,” said Melissa Murphy , who runs two Sweet Melissa Patisseries in Brooklyn. “There’s just not enough to go around right now.”

Trucks present other problems. Streets clog. Parking disappears. The crowds and the diesel fumes that swirl around all those idling buses of gastronomy annoy the neighbors.

But civic leaders can’t ignore the trend, which is not going the way of raspberry vinegar. Like drive-throughs, which were the subject of many a city council meeting when national fast-food chains embraced them in the 1970s, food trucks are changing the way America eats.

“The growth of the mobile restaurant unit is a long-term trend,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association. “If you think about growth in the restaurant industry over the past decade, it’s basically a question of points of access.”

It is the rare restaurant chain that isn’t looking into the marketing potential of a truck. Taco Bell and Jack in the Box have them. Tasti D-Lite plans to roll out almost a dozen by next year. Even the Hilton hotel chain is in on the game, promoting its DoubleTree brand by sending a truck filled with free cookies around the country this summer.

So what’s a city leader to do? Legislate.

In New York, truck owners now face a ticket or a tow if they sell food from metered spaces. The Seattle City Council on Monday is expected to decide whether to unleash food trucks onto its streets with tight regulations on where they can park.

In Chicago, which appears on the verge of allowing something more than prepackaged food to be sold from mobile units, competition is the biggest issue. Although Mayor Rahm Emanuel supported the trucks during his recent campaign, the alderman who heads the committee that will consider the proposal said it won’t pass without restrictions that would keep food trucks at least 200 feet away from restaurants.

In Raleigh, N.C., the planning commission approved new rules last week that would create similar restrictions, as well as prevent trucks from using amplified sound or dominating certain parking spaces.

Food vendors, surprised to find themselves civic parasites, are fighting back, pointing out that food trucks are a valuable urban amenity.

“Food trucks activate public space,” said David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association.

The value of food trucks as modern-day town squares — or at least hipper food courts — is not lost on city officials, many of whom are trying to lure them into other, perhaps less busy, areas.

In New York, officials are trying to entice food trucks onto park grounds, an option Doug Quint of the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck turned down.

“It sounded kind of boring to us to be in a park,” said Mr. Quint, who works the streets around Union Square and, with his partner, Bryan Petroff, will soon open a traditional store.

For people gathered at a small collection of food trucks here in Atlanta last week, the downside was hard to see. Of course, this city, which requires trucks to be on private property, has yet to come close to the scrum that hits neighborhoods in New York or Los Angeles.

Still, the trucks add a sense of belonging to a city where people spend much of their time isolated in cars.

“It fosters a sense of community,” said Dr. Adam Klein, who was sharing arepas with some of his fellow doctors from Emory University Hospital. “Atlanta is a very private city in many ways, and this is a way to get out and see people you might not otherwise see.”