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Curbside Concerns: Food Trucks and their Growing Impact on Cities

Oct 14, 2011 | Atlanta, GA

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  • Patrick Terranova

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Patrick Terranova

This story is from the Newsletter created by the Student Planning Association under the directorship of Drew Swope (MCRP class of '12).

By Patrick Terranova, MCRP Candidate (Class of 2013)

Over the past couple years, at least one urban industry seems to be burgeoning not despite the recession, but because of it: food trucks. Due in part to lower overhead costs than those of operating a restaurant as well as a greater degree of flexibility in the industry, cities all over the country have seen a growing number mobile food vendors taking to the streets to provide good eats to foodies, professionals, and curious bystanders. While I appreciate a good curbside lunch as much as the next person, I had never spent much time thinking about how street food applies to my studies in planning school.

All of that changed this summer during my fellowship in the Baltimore Mayor’s Office. I worked for ten weeks in the Office of Economic and Neighborhood and Development under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Charged with researching best practices and crafting plans and policies on how to both welcome and regulate the phenomenon that has recently arrived in the city, I found myself being referred to as Baltimore’s “Food Truck Czar.”

A big part of how my project came about was due to heavy media coverage of the issue in the last year. It came to a fever pitch in Baltimore after one of our truck vendors received a complaint from a local restaurant owner, culminating in a city official ordering the truck to shut down for not having a Street Vendor’s license. But until that instance, it had not been clear that food trucks even needed such a license. Public outcry ensued. Ultimately, the Mayor intervened in support of the trucks, temporarily lifting some restrictions and allowing a grace period for trucks to become fully licensed.

The episode above is not an anomaly, as I discovered in my research. Across the country, many cities are facing the issue of city codes and ordinances apply to food trucks, and how the permitting process should work. In general, there are three major licenses that food trucks need: a state license and tax ID number, some kind of city agency vending permit, and a health permit. It is also common for the permitting process to be onerous and unclear. Where great differences lie between cities’ approaches, and where great contention often occurs, is over where the trucks are allowed to operate.

It was not long ago that all street vendors in Atlanta were limited to a maximum of two set locations per vendor. Changes to this policy last year allowed trucks to operate at locations on private property, such as parking lots and entertainment venues. More recently, the City of Atlanta has passed an ordinance decreasing the distance a truck must maintain from a business selling similar products from 1,500 feet to 200 feet. While Atlanta’s once-draconian policies are gradually becoming more relaxed, operating a food truck on public property in the city remains a serious challenge. This fact differentiates Atlanta’s food truck scene from cities with more progressive vending policies, which afford food trucks greater flexibility in terms of location. Even still, Atlanta seems to be approaching the national standard of permitting food trucks provided their vendors are fully licensed, maintain some kind of distance from nearby brick-and-mortar restaurants, and are cognizant of pedestrian traffic, bus zones, fire hydrants, and other right-of-way concerns.

Another concern I found myself addressing this summer is the issue of parking for the trucks. Given the fact that food trucks occupy a greater than average amount of linear curb space per vehicle – often in areas with acute parking issues – and public access to the right-of-way is affected. Further, the issue of parking fees is a cause for concern. How many meters’ worth should a food truck pay for? How do cities prevent revenue loss from trucks occupying spaces longer than traditional parkers and reducing the turnover rates for parking spots? How do you balance food truck vendors’ desire for flexibility of location with a need to regulate to the roads?

These are among the many questions cities must answer as they move forward with policies to address growth of the industry. Boston has responded by requiring trucks to provide a schedule of every single location they will go to, and pay market-based “rent” based on each of those locations. In Baltimore, we created several pilot zones that were designated strictly for food truck use in high-demand areas, while still allowing for trucks to operate elsewhere if they were respectful of nearby businesses. Atlanta has in some ways avoided the issue for now, due to its limitations on food truck locations and relatively low number of vendors, but it too will have to think about how to move forward as consumer demand for street food rises.

There are many threads that weave together and depict city life, and street culture is certainly a part of that tapestry. With the number of aspiring mobile food entrepreneurs, and demand for their products on the rise, the food truck industry is providing a path for small business incubation and alternative economic development by, quite literally, taking to the streets. In addition to their convenience, they also provide a refreshing break from the generic, adding some charm and character to a culture often dominated by chains and brand names. The proliferation of food trucks has also added to the discussion of the role of the right-of-way; while often seen as a means of getting around, our city streets can become vibrant social spaces as well (an issue I hope to delve into further during my own planning studies at Tech). If done right, cities can find ways to responsibly grow the food truck industry so that vendors, residents, and governments alike can all benefit.

Patrick Terranova is in his first year in the MCRP program specializing in Land & Community Development and Economic Development.  He received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Public Administration from La Salle University in Philadelphia, PA.

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