Is Food Truck Regulation In Seattle Not Panning Out? Or Is The City Getting What It Wants?

A blog about business and economics.
March 16 2012 8:41 AM

Is Food Truck Regulation In Seattle Not Panning Out? Or Is The City Getting What It Wants?

Eric Hess offers three case studies in food truck regulation from the Pacific Norwthest—Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle. Here's Seattle:

Then, in July 2011, the city council made a bold move: it passed regulations to encourage street food. Councilors lifted restrictions on what carts can sell and created new guidelines for where they can park. Unlike Vancouver, Seattle placed the onus on vendors to find locations that meet the guidelines (such as leaving adequate throughways for pedestrians).

The city also gave restaurants and bars a veto over mobile vendors operating within 50 feet of their front doors. At the same time, they tripled fees for permits to nearly $1,000 dollars (about the same as in Portland).

Have the rule changes panned out? Not yet. Since July, the city issued only seven new permits for food trucks — defined in Seattle as self-powered vehicles with kitchens onboard — to vend from public streets, and six permits for food carts. In fact, the number of food cart permits actually have dropped since the new regulations took effect.
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It's a great take, but I'm a little confused by the claim that the rule changes in Seattle haven't panned out. By tripling fees and giving bars and restaurants veto power over where trucks can operate, it sounds as if the goal of the Seattle government was trying to make sure that the growing nationwide popularity of food trucks doesn't pose a competitive threat to existing Seattle restaurants. That relatively few trucks are opening under the new regime is a sign that the rules are panning out as intended, not that they're failing. The question for Seattle's voters and public officials is why they think that protecting the profits of incumbent business owners should be a goal of regulatory policy. Presumably other Seattle-area businesses like Amazon and Microsoft might also like to be allowed to arbitrarily exclude competitors from entering the markets they operate in. Why do restauranteurs get this special privilege?

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.