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.
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.
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?
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.