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Jencunas: Food Trucks Essential for Providence Success

Sunday, July 19, 2015


Rocket spends a lot of time in Providence.

Attention millenials, office workers on a quick lunch break, and other food truck aficionados - next time you see Councilman Bryan Principe, buy him a drink. Better yet, make a small donation to his campaign fund. He recently sponsored an ordinance that made Providence friendlier for food trucks and thus a better place to live. The ordinance passed the City Council on Thursday, and if Principe does nothing else during his term in office, it will have been a success. 

This praise might seem like hyperbole, but Principe’s ordinance is more important than it seems. Encouraging food trucks means Providence residents have more options for good, affordable food. More importantly, it sends a message that Providence is a modern city that embraces new trends rather than tries to hold back change. If the city applies this approach to other new technologies and trends, Providence would become a better place to live. 

Food trucks are an example of modern urban innovation. Due to low overhead, it’s much easier for entrepreneurial chefs to open a food truck than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The same low overhead helps keep prices low while still serving fresh, tasty food. That popular combination ahs caused food trucks to become wildly popular in recent years. 

Unfortunately, laws don’t always keep pace with innovation. In Providence, food trucks couldn’t be in a parking space longer than two hours. Since it takes time to set up the food truck’s kitchen and unpack it once the truck is finished selling, this time limit was a major problem for food truck vendors. It forced them to move too frequently, wasting time packing and unpacking rather than serving customers. 

Councilman Principe’s ordinance lets vendors stay in a location for four hours. That’s the smallest amount of time recommended by the National League of Cities in their 2013 report about food trucks, but it’s a huge improvement from the two-hour rule. More locations will be available for food trucks, and this should entice more chefs into entering the food truck market. 

Mama Kim's is another food truck that often is in Providence.

Providence relies on students and young professionals to provide economic vitality, so supporting new trends like food trucks is essential for urban success. If Providence wants the millenials who come for college to remain after graduation, it needs to offer them the lifestyle they want from a modern city. Food trucks are part of that, and Councilman Principe deserves praise for helping them be a part of Providence’s culinary scene. 

Providence should take a similar approach to other urban innovations like Uber, a ride-sharing app that competes with taxis, and Airbnb, a short-term rental service that competes with hotels. So far, the city has resisted attempts to stifle these services with severe regulations, like Bill DeBlasio is doing in New York City with Uber and Santa Monica did with Airbnb. However, as the popularity of these services increase, the threat they pose to entrenched interests will also rise. In tern, this will increase pressure on Providence’s government to hinder these popular innovations. 

Taxicab unions and hotel operators are both organized interests groups who can bring pressure on their own. What’s more, their attempts to regulate their innovative competitors are supported by misguided liberals. These liberals, often motivated by the low salaries of Uber drivers, think that erecting barriers to entry and eliminating jobs will raise wages rather than simply increase unemployment. 

This is a mistake no different from over-regulating food trucks. Both are biased against innovation, both ignore real consumer demand for new services, and both would stand in the way of helping Providence attract skilled millenials and provide citizens a better quality of life.

Embracing, not fighting, the future is a pathway to success for cities. The city council did a great job of that by reforming food truck regulations. If that spirit continues to guide their approach to regulations, they will be doing their city a valuable service and truly earning their votes.

Brian Jencunas works as a communications and media consultant. He can be reached at [email protected] and always appreciates reader feedback.


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