June 27, 2013 | by Mark Lee
‘What the truck’ happened with D.C. vending rules?

It’s finally over, concluding last week with a whimper.

In the end, the protracted multi-year process of establishing modern mobile vending regulations for the D.C. central business district and citywide left the public suddenly and decidedly perplexed regarding what transpired when resolved.

After all the bluster by truck-based street food sellers and serial badgering of city officials on social media, the D.C. Council approved the city’s most recent plan essentially in its entirety, fashioning only a couple of modest and relatively inconsequential tweaks. Mayor Vincent Gray signed the legislation two days after passage, on Thursday, June 20.

It was a surprising turn of events, hastily glossed over by mobile roadway vendors in their rush to avow an end to the controversy. It appeared that even they, and local media that had long fueled the conflict, had grown weary of the entire matter.

As local blog DCist headlined it, “our long legislative food truck nightmare is basically over.”

In the aftermath you had to ponder: what was the point of it all?

Orchestrated obstinacy by mobile food vendors and their industry trade association unexpectedly switched to acquiescence on public space use rules and general operating regulations vehemently opposed for nearly four years. In fact, several operators testifying at a D.C. Council hearing earlier this month expressed chagrin that they had not accepted a prior version, specifically the second of four iterations proffered by the city for public comment.

In hindsight, food truck owners realized that identification of solutions simultaneous to increasing stress on shared public space, survey of regulatory practices in other cities and development of a workable scenario for bringing order to crowded city streets had led to a more comprehensive rulemaking framework. The desire of many food trucks to retain the renegade “Wild West” mentality that evolved alongside the absence of regulation was thwarted by a compromise plan mollifying the full complement of stakeholders.

A monthly lottery to assign designated spaces within some 20-plus initial “Mobile Roadway Vending” (MRV) zones, accommodating nearly 200 trucks and more than the total number, is expected to go into effect at the end of the summer. These prime locations, representing the areas most utilized by the trucks, will allow for extended four-hour parking from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each day, for a flat fee equal to meter pricing. Trucks will be allowed to opt for legal parking spaces outside the zones, but only for the standard two-hour limit and provided they pay the meter fee. Spots within 200 ft. of a MRV zone will be off-limits to avoid overconcentration. All non-MRV parking spots are required to have a minimum six-foot sidewalk clearance for pedestrian passage, the minimum required for sidewalk cafes.

Ironically responsible for supporter head scratching were the vendors themselves. The whole kerfuffle centered on a continuous dosing of misinformation. Hyperbolic rhetoric designed to advance their stance contorted the issues beyond comprehension, causing confusion and cynicism.

Fans had difficulty deciphering the almost overnight shift to agreement, as it was contraindicated by everything they had been told up to that moment.

A free-spirited culture led the industry to advocate for no real regulation while pretending otherwise. In a rapidly growing and densely constituted urban area with streetscape usage demands by a multitude of sources, the notion that the city would not need to establish sensible rules was unrealistic.

The false claim that the conflict was solely competition-based between food trucks and “brick-and-mortar” restaurants also fell by the wayside. A “David vs. Goliath” portrayal was ultimately discarded as if nothing more than the disposable food containers overflowing sidewalk trash receptacles.

It’s now incumbent upon food trucks to demonstrate that their newfound willingness to adopt a collective community sensibility is genuine and includes a commitment to embrace the rules and ensure successful implementation.

Otherwise, public opinion – and the patience of their patrons – will be tested once too often.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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