Can We Have Quieter Food Trucks Please?

rice-park-food-truck

A food truck in Rice Park.

I like food trucks. I’m usually too cheap to spend $10 on food truck food, but that doesn’t matter because they do a great job at enlivening our public spaces. Food trucks mean more people outside, occupying formerly empty spots in the streetscape.

Plus, I’m told they offer good food. And with all the brick-and-mortar food truck transitions, it’s fairly obvious that they serve as a small business incubators. For cities, that’s a sweet deal, especially considering it only requires a simple regulatory change to help them thrive.

That said, one overlooked aspect of food trucks is their noise. For all the public space good that food trucks do, it only takes one bad generator to ruin a sidewalk.

Street life and Soundscape

But as an urban geographer, it’s the effect on street life that tickles my fancy. Public space is a huge challenge in the Twin Cities. So many of our sidewalks sit empty, and so many streets have been eroded by parking lots or ramps, blank walls or seas of asphalt with plastic bags blowing in the wind. Food trucks have the potential to “kill two birds with one stone” by filling in our parking lots with places for people.

But it doesn’t always work that way. A lot depends on the details, and my #1 food truck pet peeve is when the generator is extraordinarily loud. Some food trucks (not going to name names) have very noisy generators, and  the ceaseless din undermines the very public spaces enlivened by the truck in the first place. Being near one of the generators is like having a bus idling next to you, or a jackhammer operator working on the next block.

Two examples from Saint Paul. On certain days and times, food trucks park themselves around Mears Park, one of downtown’s two keystone square parks. Back when I used to drive a pedicab downtown, one of the best spots to linger was right on the corner of 6th and Wacouta. But some days, I’d be planted right next to a particularly loud food truck, its rickety generator throbbing along constantly within 15’ of the row of sidewalk cafés. In a stroke, the generator made the whole street unpleasant.

And the other day I was hanging out at a Saint Paul brewery. Nobody was out on their patio, and why would you want to be? It was not only a bit chilly, but the sound of the food truck generator had erased everything else, turning an otherwise great plaza into a space filled with industrial clamor. 

food-truck-generator

Notes on Soundscapes

Thinking about public space and sound, I went into the “App Store” and downloaded a decibel meter. (There are plenty of free choices; you should get one for your smart phone!)

Here are some readings. Remember that dB is a log scale. In other words, 80 dB is ten times louder than 70 dB:

60 dB is what the Mayo says is a normal conversation level, but this is a bit unrealistic for a public space. Maybe a quiet room in your house with a car driving past on the street outside the window. (Like the room I’m sitting in right now.)

70 dB is the sound you might encounter in a half-full restaurant (though this varies quite a bit) or in the middle of Rice Park.

80 dB is a diesel bus idling next to you

90 dB is about the sound of one of those super annoying hand dryers that blow the air at great speed

100 dB is a revving Harley

I think about public space a lot, and the soundscape is an often overlooked variable. Apart from odor (which, you know, is really hard to control; other than banning tanneries or garbage, what can you do?) it’s probably the least considered variable.

But noises and sounds shape our cities. Nobody (except clubbers or football fans?) wants to shout to talk to their friends, and nobody wants to listen to the constant thrumming of a gas generator for twenty minutes.

stp-east-7th-food-truck

Generator noise at this food truck, along busy loud East 7th Street, doesn’t much matter.

Solutions

The ideal solution would be to build electric food truck plazas like I mentioned in my streets.mn article from a few years ago. I still don’t understand why this hasn’t happened somewhere in the Twin Cities. These kinds of plazas are all over Portland, and do a great job of providing food truck space and filling in parking lots at the same time. You could install “pop-up” picnic tables and parklet-style plazas in the ubiquitous underused surface parking lots along many of our city’s main streets or downtowns. Take a few of the parking spaces, 5-10 of them, add a little green space and electricity, and — voila! — you’ve got a great public place.

The other thing to do is to enforce noise ordinances, or to have food truck regulators (or sponsors) … There should be a way to complain about generator noise. Get the decibel measuring app on your phone, but I’m not sure who you’d report it to? Maybe just complain to the brewery or use a 311-style app?

portland97

Food truck parklet plaza in downtown Portland.

I get that quieter food truck generators are more expensive, and that this is a burden for food truck operators. One of the main reasons I like the food truck concept is that it lowers the bar for entry for new businesspeople with new ideas.

But low overhead shouldn’t come at the expense of the public realm. We shouldn’t be subsidizing food trucks by making our parks, plazas, and sidewalks noisy and unpleasant places. I’d much rather experience food trucks as an unmitigated boon to our public places. Let’s make sure they contribute to our streets, filling our parks and plazas with wonderful smells, and not drowning them out with engines.


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15 Responses to Can We Have Quieter Food Trucks Please?

  1. JN May 26, 2016 at 8:54 am #

    Can we also do something about cars,trucks, and motor cycles that have purposely removed their mufflers & catalytic converters? Also can we also charge a massive fine to every A-hole who has mega bass?

    I hate noise pollution, and despise loud vehicles.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke May 26, 2016 at 9:05 am #

      Agree, but food trucks seems like a good place to start because a) they are not moving and b) they are already regulated

  2. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell May 26, 2016 at 9:23 am #

    Hear! Hear!

    I’m with you (and JN) 100%.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke May 26, 2016 at 11:47 am #

      I think you mean, “I can’t hear! I can’t hear!”

  3. GlowBoy May 26, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

    Having recently moved from Portland, which has well over 500 (not exaggerating!) licensed food carts, as they are known there, I can chime in the benefits of the plazas you describe. Portland has dozens of these (known locally as “pods”), and they work great.

    And as you point out, one of the great benefits of these pods is that the carts can hook up to electricity and not run noisy generators. Many of the better pods have covered seating areas, sometimes with patio heaters, and some even have big screen TVs for the entertainment of their customers. Most pods have between 8 and 15 carts to choose from, so if you have a family or a group each person can choose whatever appeals to them and still sit together. Basically they are outdoor food courts, without the mall (and with better food).

    By the way, the reason they’re called food carts, and not food trucks, in Portland is that most of them are converted camping trailers rather than RVs or delivery trucks. This reduces startup and operating costs, and allows them to park semi-permanently in the pods, which is a great benefit because diners know the carts are always there. But unlike storefront restaurants, there’s still a lot of flexibility, and carts come and go, with about the same frequency as the food vendors in Midtown Market.

    Even in Portland I have experienced the generator-noise problem firsthand, though. My office building was in Beaverton (a Portland suburb) and we’d have food carts come by a couple times a week and set up shop in our parking lot. Some were wonderful (Koi Fusion, a Korean taco joint, was my favorite), but some had REALLY noisy generators that made it unpleasant to be even want to stand around waiting 5 minutes for your food. You’d think the operators would be more conscious that the noise sometimes drives away customers.

    I should point out that some generators are a lot louder than others. I would think it would be in the interest of food cart/truck operators who need to run generators to do some shopping and select one of the quieter ones.

    I suspect the reason you don’t see this in most cities is not that Portland’s food culture is so special (although it is) but because in Portland the pods, and carts, are fully sanctioned by the city, with licensing and regular inspection by both fire and health departments. Although more established restaurants have sometimes tried to get the city to be more restrictive, for the most part the carts have won that battle. The concept really proliferated in the late 2000s when the economy collapsed (with Portland hit much harder than Minneapolis), prompting more demand for cheap, inventive food as well as providing an ample supplies of underutilized parking lots and underemployed aspiring chefs without enough money to start up brick-and-mortar restaurants. In fact the number of carts is now on the decline, thanks to rampant apartment construction eating up said parking lots. But they’ve always been there: there were a few there even in the late 90s when I first moved to Portland, which I thought was great because I’d just moved from Seattle which absolutely forbade them.

    Here’s a great guide to Portland’s food-cart culture, by the way:
    http://www.foodcartsportland.com/

    • Rosa May 26, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

      those sound great, and I bet the electric hookups save the vendors lots of aggravation and some money, too.

  4. Julia May 26, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

    We’re still often ignoring entire senses when it comes to our streets, most notably sound and smell. Perhaps it’s because they’re so transitory, but there’s nothing worse than waiting for the bus with sewage smells wafting up from a manhole or having to stop a conversation on a patio while semis truck by.

    I’ve noticed generators as an issue (with stinky diesel as well), but in my experience, those constitute just a small portion of the unnecessary and rampant noise/smell pollution on our streets, particularly in our our densest and most walkable residential/commercial corridors. Glad to see conversation around this!

  5. Mase May 26, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

    My personal noise pet-peeve is leaf blowers. Beyond the pollution of two-stroke engines, the non-constant noise (allowed until 10:00p in Mpls!) is aggravating to put it mildly.

    https://wamu.org/news/16/02/04/dc_composer_fights_back_against_unwanted_symphony_leaf_blowers

    • Matthew Steele May 27, 2016 at 10:25 am #

      I’m guilty as a leaf-blower user (after I mow my lawn with a silent reel mower). It cleans up the sidewalk so much better than sweeping, and I have my routine down to about 120-180 seconds of actual blower operation. I do a few neighbors’ sidewalks as well, as far as my extension cord allows. As a stroller walker, I know how small debris can have an impact on stroller push/ride quality, so I appreciate the cleanest sidewalks we can manage. But it’s good to keep leaf blower use brief for the sake of neighbors.

      • robsk May 27, 2016 at 5:51 pm #

        Nice ideas Bill. Now that food trucks are past their initial growth stage, regulators should look at ways to counter the noise. Keep pressing and plug-in stations or alternative generators might eventually win out.

        Those noisy leaf-blowers raise my blood pressure. Matthew is in the minority on
        proper leaf-blower use. Most people I see blow their waste back onto the street or at the neighbor’s lawn. I’ll choose the broom any day. Free exercise! Maybe I’m a little neurotic, but I’m a guy that sweeps snow off his sidewalk too. Thanks to all the weirdos keeping their sidewalks clean.

  6. Shawn May 26, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    Did I miss read?

    What did your decibel meter say about how loud the generator is? How far from the generator did you take the reading?

  7. Robert Moffitt May 26, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

    There are some trucks in town that run their generators on propane, which can also be used for cooking food in the trucks. These propane generators are both quieter and emit less pollutants. A few years ago I tries to organize an effort to get trucks to switch to biodiesel as the primary vehicle fuel, with little results. You should note that all diesel trucks in MN operate on a 10% biodiesel during the warm weather — B10, it’s called — and in a few years, they will all use a 20% (B20) blend.

  8. Vicki Barnes May 29, 2016 at 9:24 am #

    Gotta say, although the generator noise is a big deal to me as well, doesn’t anyone ever think about the fact that the Mears Park food trucks are parked on the dog waste side of the park? People sit on the wall and stand in the mulch where dog urine and worse is, or has been recently. I get that the Wacouta side is less travelled, but as the owner of 2 dogs who visit it regularly, I just want to warn everyone to not linger!

  9. Bob May 29, 2016 at 9:57 am #

    We want vibrancy in Saint Paul! (Just not too much)

    We want people in Saint Paul! (Just not too many)

    We want businesses! (Just not too many, ND only specific kinds)

    We want change! (Just not too much change)

  10. Howard May 29, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

    Thank you for this article, thank you!!!. I live above WSK and they have a food truck that revs in the morning between 8 and 9am (not so bad) and then again between 2 and 3 when it’s like listening to an airplane idle for an hour. I close my windows during this time and turn up the volume on whatever I’m listening too. I even wear earplugs. WSK has brick and mortar and the truck and recently opened some icey shoppe. Its greed personified and I understand having to pay the help but consideration is necessary for the tenants in this building. If I had known it would be so irritating I would not have signed the petition for them to be here. I may be neurotic, but I like having my windows open for fresh air, I like hearing birds instead of engines, I like hearing people outside instead of engines.

    Thank you again all that expressed opinions about the noise of these trucks.