Harvard Economist Edward Glaeser On Food Trucks And How To Regulate Them

Edward Glaeser, the Harvard economist who is an expert on what makes some cities thrive while others flounder, has a good piece in the Boston Globe about food trucks and how they should be regulated.

Here's the great lede, one that L.A. residents can understand: Economists like myself often present themselves as dispassionate data-driven analysts, but I can maintain no such detachment toward the cause of the food truck.

More Glaeser

Abundant urban consumers enable specialized production, like the chefs in scores of different specialized cooking styles that give cities so much more eating variety than suburbs. As the world becomes better educated and more sophisticated, it craves new experiences -- and cities foster the experimentation that makes that possible.

Food trucks are a natural part of the innovative culinary process and they make particular sense for Boston.

Glaeser says they make sense for Boston because it's a walking city with a diverse ethnic mix and a lack of available real estate for affordable restaurants. All of that applies to L.A., except the walking part, though in a sense L.A., being such an auto-centric city, also makes sense for food trucks because they bring food to the people so that customers don't have to endure the hassle of going to a restaurant.

Glaeser then offers his public policy argument, which is particularly relevant to Los Angeles, as the City Council and the County Board of Supervisors consider how to further regulate food trucks.

So what's stopping food trucks from proliferating in Boston? The most common complaints are "complex licensing and zoning regulations'' -- would-be vendors say licensing can take many months.

Food trucks do need to be licensed, at least to ensure safe food. Moreover, trucks should be charged by the government when they occupy public space. (Private landlords can presumably make their own arrangements.)

Controlling public space and protecting public health are legitimate reasons for regulation, but the loudest voices against food trucks often come from restaurateurs complaining about competition. Preserving the monopoly power of local eateries is a terrible reason to restrict food trucks.

In other words, although it's understandable that for safety and parking issues food trucks should be regulated, policymakers should make compliance swift and doable. And, the new regulatory regime shouldn't be merely used as a method to protect existing businesses while keeping out new ones.

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