By Kathleen Rooney | Forbes
The District of Columbia’s food-truck industry faced a regulatory doomsday when Mayor Vincent C. Gray proposed restrictions on the nascent industry that would have made it almost impossible for the mobile gourmets to survive. For months, they were threatened with constraints that were meant to protect incumbent businesses from competition. If imposed, overnight the industry would go from being one of the most vibrant in the nation to one of the worst.
The mayor proposed a set of regulations that would have forbidden the vast majority of trucks from operating downtown unless they were lucky enough to win a lottery that would allow them to park in one of a limited number of designated spaces. As a result, the city’s trucks would be deprived of the two things they need to succeed: mobility and reliable access to their customers.
Thankfully, citizens and food-truck operators themselves didn’t stand for this. Widespread and vocal community activism forced the City Council of the District of Columbia to reconsider the proposed regulations.
The ominous clouds hovering over D.C.’s food trucks were lifted when the council rejected the most prohibitive aspects of Mayor Gray’s proposals. Now, food-truck owners have a choice: They can park in designated spaces if they want, but are still free to roam about the city and park in other locations where their customers want them to be.
The new regulations averted food-truck Armageddon, but they certainly aren’t perfect, particularly because they do not allow trucks to park within 200 feet of the designated spaces. Thus, D.C. missed its chance to trademark itself as not only the nation’s capital, but also the nation’s food-truck capital.
If cities are looking for models to follow to maximize their food-truck presence—and with it the many benefits food trucks bring, such as increased economic activity, new job creation, and increased foot traffic that makes streets more enjoyable and safer places to visit—they’d be well served to look west. Los Angeles, where the food-truck revolution began, has one of the most diverse and innovative food-truck industries in the entire nation thanks in large measure to officials who adhere to a couple of simple principles when regulating this industry.
First, the city officials reject the kind of provincial protectionism found in other locations—protectionism designed to protect brick-and-mortar businesses from food-truck competition. Second, L.A. provides clear, narrowly tailored and outcome-based rules that are generally based on public health and safety concerns, not protectionism.
Unfortunately, other cities from San Francisco to Boston haven’t followed suit. San Francisco, for example, imposes a costly and time-consuming vending licensing scheme. Truck owners must first apply for a particular spot, and then get permission from city officials to operate. Food trucks may not park in any spot within 75 feet of a restaurant or within 1,000 feet of most high schools. Boston food trucks are also limited to only a relative handful of spots around the city and require mobile businesses to keep a GPS tracking device on each truck. From coast to coast these and other jurisdictions impose licensing laws and regulations to protect incumbent businesses from food-truck newcomers.
Officials who impose such laws diminish homegrown and spontaneous opportunities for revitalizing underused public spaces as they stifle innovation and inexpensive cuisine. Although a vocal minority of restaurateurs will continue to call for officials to enact anti-competitive food-truck laws, officials should resist those calls for three reasons.
First, as a recent report by the Institute for Justice demonstrated, food trucks actually boost—not harm—their local restaurant industries. Second, brick-and-mortar restaurants have a host of inherent advantages over food trucks, including on-site food storage, air conditioning and customer seating. Thus, they don’t need the government to give them an extra advantage. Third, and most importantly, it is not the role of government to protect some businesses from competition from others. Indeed, several federal courts have held that such protectionism runs afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which secures every American’s right to earn an honest living.
In order for the food-truck revolution sweeping the country to continue, cities must eschew economic protectionism and enhance food-truck freedom. This means not just avoiding terrible laws, as in D.C., but following L.A.’s example of enacting good ones.