"What problems are D.C.'s new food truck regulations trying to solve?" Slate blogger Matthew Yglesias wondered in March. Months later, the D.C. Council is still struggling to answer that basic question while it considers the fourth draft of regulations that would impose parking and other restrictions on these popular vendors.
Food trucks, which sell a tantalizing array of delicacies from kimchi to cupcakes, are currently regulated under the "ice cream rule," which allows them to park only if there's a line of customers waiting. But both city officials and food truck operators agree that the rule does not adequately address this innovative phenomenon.
Brick-and-mortar restaurateurs have been the primary advocates of limiting the number of food trucks allowed to sell food at 23 "mobile vending zones" located throughout the city. A lottery would assign parking spaces for $150 per month. But by limiting food trucks' unique competitive edge -- their mobility -- the proposed regulations basically turn them into stationary restaurants on wheels.
They would also limit food trucks to areas with a full 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalk space located at least 500 feet from the nearest "mobile vending zone," further restricting their access to hungry customers. The Food Truck Association of Metropolitan Washington points out that the sidewalk rule alone would make the majority of prime downtown lunch locations off-limits.
That's the point. Established restaurants want the city to corral what one opponent sniffed was the "Wild West" of free-range lunch options because they believe food trucks are poaching their customers. Even if that's true, the city officials should not use regulations to protect one group of businesses from their competition.
The last time they tried that move was just last year when they attempted to force Uber -- another innovative and highly popular service that allows people to bypass D.C.'s heavily regulated taxi industry and use their smartphones to summon rides from an all-hybrid fleet --to charge at least five times the minimum taxicab rate. This attempt to deliberately price the newcomer out of the market died after a well-deserved public backlash. Last December, the Council backed down and passed legislation that did not regulate the pricing model of Uber or other "digital dispatch" car services.
Council members should reject these unnecessary and restrictive food truck regulations. The only "problem" here is that they expose D.C.'s deep-seated aversion to freedom and competition.