Los Angeles is lousy with food trucks at the moment. Thanks to a collision of social- and mass-media fawning, they’ve earned all the valuable trend labels (“hot,” “in,” etc.), transcending their utilitarian function and entering the lofty realm of Culturally Significant Phenomena. No longer do these Winnebago-sized mobile restaurants simply serve workers at construction sites and other dusty places where food and drink can be scarce. Now they’re parked everywhere, including directly in front of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Let us put aside for the moment disucssion of the quality of food they serve, or the “need” they seem to fill. Instead, let’s examine the consequences of allowing these rolling commisaries to operate on our city streets.
Business owners, who pay taxes, purchase licenses, and endure all the other headaches associated with owning a food business, have complained that food trucks largely avoid the myriad responsibilities of owning a food business while still garnering many of the rewards. The general response to their complaint has been: “The customer is always right; let the market decide.”
Even with the shock and awe of the bank bailout fresh in our minds, most of us still worship at the temple of Milton Friedman, so this all sounds reasonable and commendably American.
The problem, as with most “free market” experiments, is that the market isn’t free. It’s isn’t remotely close to that. The dice are loaded.
Food trucks take up parking spaces, and they often don’t pay for them. During a highly unscientific survey this space conducted on Sunset Boulevard, the four food trucks operating between two major avenues (La Brea and Fairfax), occupied 11 parking spaces. (This includes “trucks” that are actually large wagons hitched to large trucks.) Of the 11 occupied spaces, all had parking meters that showed “expired.” None had been issued parking tickets.
Food trucks belch carbon monoxide into our already infamously smoggy atmosphere. Their engines power the ice machines that keep the drinks cold and the fryers that keep the prawns crispy and the griddles that keep the pannini toasty — so until they convert to solar power (or figure out how to steal even more public resources) they’ll continue to pollute the environment.
Food trucks generally don’t use flatware and plates. Everything is meant “to-go,” which results in mounds of plastic utensils, plates, cups, bags, and cartons — and you know what that means. Worse, the City provides a woefully inadequate amount of trash receptacles, particularly along Sunset Boulevard. Frequently, unprotected newspaper vending machines and tree planter boxes become the improvised depository for the food truck waste.
Food trucks may be “the in-thing” among so-called foodies, who reportedly track the location of certain trucks via Twitter. But any business that involves the constant use of automobiles is a net negative. We need to rethink our food truck fetish. While we’re pondering, our vegetables will grow a little, our air will freshen a bit, and the next candidate in an inexorable procession of consumer fads will have time to germinate.