October 24, 2012 | by Mark Lee
Food trucks flail against curbside compromise
Food truck, gay news, Washington Blade

The first-ever Washington Blade Food Truck Rally attracted seven of the city’s best food trucks. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray probably wishes he could be as happy as the scantily clad bodybuilder directing traffic from the middle of a busy urban intersection in a current insurance company TV commercial.

Instead, hopes that special considerations being offered food trucks in newly proposed city regulations released on Oct. 5 governing their operation would be welcomed have suddenly faded. The D.C. Food Truck Association (DCFTA) announced opposition to the new rules last Thursday.

Yep, the familiar food truck tussle with the city is on again.

The revised rules update regulations designed three decades ago for ice cream trucks and hot dog carts. They incorporate changes reflecting review of public comments filed after two previous drafts over the past two years. The city has struggled to devise equitable guidelines for food trucks while balancing multiple public space use needs.

The regulations allow all food trucks to vend from fixed locations and permit use of public space and on-street public parking spots. Trucks need only a single vending license with employees able to manage operations without an owner on-board or purchase of additional licenses.

The modernized rules enable mobile vendors to continue current operations. Food truck owners have long enjoyed special accommodations pending finalization of new regulations. As a result, they now take these beneficial regulatory changes for granted.

Food truck owners oppose a compromise governing their location and concentration on downtown streets, despite being less restrictive than rules adopted by other jurisdictions nationwide. The proposal also poses fewer limitations than an earlier draft issued at the beginning of the year. Overlooked by DCFTA is a significant concession disallowed by D.C. Council legislation approved only three years ago.

That 2009 law requires all vendors to operate from assigned spots and followed an extensive two-year Council review of regulations in other cities. Designed to prevent a repeat of past violent incidents among stationary food cart operators coming to blows over available spots, it will presumably require modification for greater flexibility to be granted.

DCFTA upset centers on encouraging trucks to operate from designated spots in commercial districts for better streetscape management, preventing overconcentration and reducing the pressures on public space. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is designated to establish Mobile Roadway Vending (MRV) locations for at least three trucks each, parked one per block on any one side of a street.

Food trucks may currently use any metered parking space for only the allowed two-hour period, provided they pay for parking. Operators commonly disregard this requirement – either exceeding the time limit or not paying the meter fee, or both – and, if caught, consider the $25 ticket a cost of doing business. For that reason, the city is increasing the penalty to $100.

The new MRV alternative would allow use of specially designated parking spaces for four hours, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., consolidating meter costs in a quarterly permit fee. This creates certainty of securing space and doubles the service period. Outside MRV zones, use of any parking space would still be allowed.

DCFTA objects to this provision because they organize single-day hyper-concentration by trucks in specific areas, such as “Farragut Fridays” surrounding the downtown green space. Upwards of 30 trucks flock to a single location, often lined up head-to-tail, reducing public parking and negatively affecting pedestrian passage and commercial business activity.

If food truck operators take a fresh look at the opportunities the regulations offer to better serve the public, they would discover the city compromise makes sense.

The plan allows adequate customer choice in MRV zones, but ends the practice of only providing service to locales on particular days. Trucks would be encouraged to spread out equitably to additional areas, expanding service to new markets. It would improve civic management of public streetscapes – urged by businesses, building management firms, Business Improvement Districts, office tenants and residents.

Rather than accusing the mayor of “threatening food trucks” and ignoring the deference to their operation this hybrid approach provides, food trucks should consider their failure to reach out to potential customers and better serve the entire community.

A lack of imagination and disregard for other stakeholders are not legitimate excuses.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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