I don’t agree with all of Yglesias’ analysis here on cities regulating food trucks out of business, but the overall point is fairly sound. In the comment section for my post on Cleveland the other day, I suggested that cities trying to revitalize themselves need to spend more time creating the infrastructure that would allow people to create exciting urban life organically rather than try to find the next gigantic project that will save the city. In Cleveland’s case, this is the baseball stadium and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both of which have their charms but have not revolutionized Cleveland’s downtown as promised. Rather, the happening places in Cleveland are away from downtown, in Ohio City and Tremont, where people are creating very fun neighborhoods without significant municipal assistance.
Food trucks are an excellent example of how a city can create this infrastructure. The food truck phenomenon is overrated in terms of the quality of food and the experience of standing around eating, but it does have real benefits. Food trucks are cheap, fast, often good, and create eating experiences for people on the go. This can be workers catching a quick lunch or people leaving the clubs at 2 a.m. Restaurants are not nor should be the only eating out experience we can have. In Portland and Austin, where the food carts have taken off, they have become central to the urban landscape, reinforcing what makes those cities some of the nation’s most vibrant urban spaces in the early 21st century. But as Yglesias points out, the restaurant industry is outraged and has lobbied city councils to eliminate the threat. That is suboptimal.
At the same time, I do have some sympathy for the restauranteurs. That’s often a low-profit business with a high chance of failing. Yglesias notes that “Space is scarce and rents are high in the centers of major American cities. If new competition can bring prices down, we’ll all be better off in the long run.” Well, lower prices mean lower wages for workers. It’s not as if most waiters are getting rich. I like a cheap piece of pizza or a taco as much as anyone, but workers’ wages and overall employment numbers are worth studying in the food truck-restaurant debate.