Food trucks have been in the news recently. National Public Radio, in particular, has been interested, and particularly in New York. In April, Planet Money's Robert Smith tagged along with the Rickshaw Dumpling truck. In May, Leonard Lopate interviewed three food truck owners. In June, Ilya Marritz exposed the dysfunction in our city's permitting system.
Tonight on Twitter, Alon Levy and Stephen Smith pointed out that even the Arab Spring is related to food carts: in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after he was forcibly prevented by government officials from selling produce on the street and then denied any appeal, shouting "How do you expect me to make a living?" before lighting the match.
Like Stephen, I have mixed feelings about food trucks. I've enjoyed their food and I appreciate how they foster dynamism and experimentation with food. I would prefer to see them run their refrigerators, and other electrical appliances from the grid rather than by gasoline-powered generators or compressors. In my hierarchy of street space allocations, I put the high-energy-use trucks above general parking, but below taxi stands and delivery loading zones, and way below low-energy-use retail like hot dog, ice cream or tamale carts. If the city, the business improvement district or property owners were to provide them with grid electricity, I would be happier. I also wouldn't mind seeing small, cheap storefronts with takeout windows instead.
Any way you slice it, given any parking space in the city, I'd rather see a food truck there than some bureaucrat's government car, or a curb cut for a car wash. But that's the problem that Smith, Lopate and Marritz's interviewees all highlight: food trucks never had priority for curbside space, and now in most of the city they are in fact prohibited from using it.
That in turn connects this issue with the issue of curbside bus stops that I discussed a couple of weeks ago. Where there's a fight over curb space, chances are you'll find it's underpriced.
Right now, an army of NYPD officers are employed to keep curbside space clear for private cars and curb cuts. It would be simpler, and probably require a lot less policing, if the city set up two marketplaces. One would be for short term rental: fifteen minutes to 24 hours, run like the SFPark pilot. Another would be for long term use.
In this long term leasing system, Mohamed the produce guy can bid against Courtney the artisanal hákarl rugelach truck owner, the Double Fast Bus Company, Sid the dentist who wants to park his BMW in front of his office every day, Jose the bagel shop owner who wants customer car parking, Aaron the cafe owner who wants customer bike parking, Ben the pizza maker who wants customer seating, Theresa the plumber who wants a curb cut, and the aquarium, for long-term leases. If Courtney wins the bidding, she gets to park there every day for a year or sublease it on days when she's not using it.
You could have separate leases for morning, afternoon, evening and night parking, and even by day of the week. We could bring back separation of church and state on Sundays, and if the Temperance Tabernacle of Our Lady of Chastity wants parking for their parishioners, those parishioners need to outbid Dave's House of Drinkin' and Whorin'.
It's not a perfect system, and it may turn out that all on-street parking is dominated by big churches, curb cuts and dentists. It may need to be tweaked to provide adequate opportunities for buses, food trucks, fresh produce and pop-up parks, but I can't imagine it would be worse than what we've got today. At the very least, the people who use that space for personal vehicles would have to pay for it.