Everyone's excited about the food truck revolution, but what are the implications for urbanism and the environment?

gourmet bitches toronto
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

The restrictions are being eased to make it easier for food trucks to serve in Toronto. Is this a good thing?

It's an annual ritual: Spring comes, people want to be outside, and there is a debate over food trucks. Like many cities, Toronto has had strict rules about mobile food. Now they are being loosened; as of May 15 they can park on public streets for up to three hours without a special permit; they can operate from private property. There are still tough restrictions, the toughest being that no food truck can set up closer than 50 meters (165 feet) so nobody is totally happy (usually the sign of a good compromise); Jennifer Bain quotes a city councillor in the Star:

“Why oh why oh why meddle and micromanage everything here?” Beaches-East York Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon had asked council. “Let’s just grow up and put a little faith in these dynamic foodie entrepreneurs and give them a chance to exist. Let’s give those hungry Torontonians what they want.”

Mayor Ford also came out in favor of the free market. “This is free enterprise, this is capitalism, let ’em sell what they want, and let the customer decide.” For once, a whole lot of latte sipping bike riding pinko kooks are agreeing with him.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Is this a good idea?

There are many wonderful things about food trucks. They are a platform for young entrepreneurs to start a business without the costs of a bricks and mortar spot. They follow the crowds can quickly respond to demand in a way that fixed establishments can't.

But with an urbanist hat on, I worry that our first priority should be reinforcing and revitalizing our main streets, to build walkable communities with the resources people need nearby, summer and winter, slow and high season. Hidden behind the food trucks in the photo above are restaurants like Chippys and Caflouti and Noce which have washrooms and other facilities. They mostly use china plates and glasses that are washed and reused. They are there all year, not only when the art show is happening in the park.

Then there is the garbage. Where does it go and who pays for picking it up? The city. The bulk of its street pickup of garbage is already fast food from permanent restaurants, but this just exacerbating it.

Finally, there is the noise and the pollution. Permanent restaurants are hooked up to municipal supplies of electricity and have engineered exhaust hoods that dump the fumes out at rooftop level; Food trucks often have engines running to generate electricity and pump their fumes out virtually at street level.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

When Pablo looked at food trucks a couple of years ago, he concluded that food trucks were actually greener than restaurants, since the owners don't have to heat all that space all day long. Sarah Johnson at the Atlantic studied cupcake trucks and concluded that mobile food had a much higher carbon footprint than a fixed storefront. But then she noted: " the "big kicker" boils down to: is it more efficient for the food to go to where the people are or have the people go to where the food is?" We still don't know the answer to that.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I remain conflicted and as I found in a survey two years ago, clearly in the minority. Perhaps I would think differently if more of them were like this crepe truck in Copenhagen. I suppose this summer we will begin to see whether they are a good thing or not.

Tags: Food Safety | Toronto

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