Free the food carts

Selling sidewalks would reduce conflict, reap cash.

By Lawrence Solomon

I would just open it up and let [food cart vendors] sell anything … whatever they want to make money on,” an unsophisticated Toronto councillor named Rob Ford said in 2008. The sophisticated councillors dismissed Ford as naive, outvoted him, and embarked on an elaborate mission to make Toronto a world-class, organic, ethnically diverse street eatery, with food dished from city-mandated $30,000 food carts.

Fast-forward to today and the dreams of the sophisticates are in shambles, as are the bank accounts of the few food-cart vendors foolish enough to have trusted city planners to devise their recipes or design their carts. That unsophisticated councilor is now Mayor Ford, his prescient earlier comments — “It’s just wasting taxpayers’ money and staff’s time to do all these reports” — perfectly anticipating the fiasco that would come of thinking the city had the market orientation and management smarts needed to sell street food.

Ford and the chastened councillors will now be scrapping the city’s foray into the food business, a move that has the potential to enliven city streets, increase the tourist trade, better serve hungry city residents, and provide true diversity in food offerings. The experience of Portland, Ore., a food-cart leader, highlights the potential. “There’s a cart to suit pretty much every palate, whether your preference is for Bosnian or Thai; Czech or Mexican; vegan bowl or bespoke burger,” extolled the U.K.’s Guardian, which decided that: “Over the past decade, Portland has confirmed its credentials as a destination city for food lovers.” A Wall Street Journal review of one food cart’s offerings gushed: “The 40% vegan menu changes daily according to what local meats and produce are available.… Some of my other favourites include linguini covered in lemon dill sauce, dragon burgers, and halibut stuffed, breaded and fried in garlic oil.”

Much larger Toronto today has half as many food carts as Portland and even less choice, despite Toronto’s reputation as one of the world’s most ethnically diverse cities. Ford can right that imbalance by following his own prescription, and letting the free market, rather than the city bureaucracy, decide what foods can be on offer.

But Ford first needs to fend off the enemies of food carts — not just city bureaucrats, but also restaurants and other retailers, who will fiercely lobby against any food cart that can compete with, or disrupt, their business. In Portland, despite the food carts’ overwhelming success, the restaurant lobby has succeeded in curtailing the carts. In Toronto, retailers will also try — the Toronto Entertainment District’s business lobby is already on record, objecting logically to competition to existing eateries in its district and illogically on grounds that food vendors would contribute to late-night violence by encouraging loitering. In fact, food carts — as with other activities that prevent districts from becoming abandoned at night — have the opposite effect. As The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink notes of food carts, “studies have shown that vendors may actually increase customer traffic and enhance safety in the area.”

Although the opposition of existing businesses to food cart competitors is understandable, it is not necessary. Ford could turn these protectionist business foes into free market political allies by simply selling off the city’s sidewalks, with property owners adjacent to sidewalks obtaining right of first refusal. The property owners could then rent their sidewalk space to food cart vendors, sell their own products, or use the space for any other permitted purpose.

Property owners other than restaurants would also become allies. Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum made headlines several years ago for shooing hot dog vendors away from its entrance, seeing them as bad for business. Had ROM owned the sidewalk, and been able to fetch rents from any vendor it decided to host, it would have seen things differently — the space outside the entrance to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has fetched more than $600,000 per year from pushcart vendors.

The benefit to a property owner of owning an adjacent sidewalk is obvious — the per-square-foot value of sidewalk space typically far exceeds that of the ground floor space within the building. But the value of a sidewalk sale to the city — and to a reform-minded mayor committed to a leaner, more efficient city — are just as compelling. If the city were to privatize the sidewalks in its commercial districts, it would bring in billions in immediate revenue from the sales and ongoing revenues from the increased property, which would now be subject to taxation. At the same time, the city’s maintenance costs and staffing requirements would decrease as the new owners of the sidewalks took over and set about making their exterior space as attractive as their interior. With the property owners required to ensure that their sidewalks met city requirements for safety and walkability, the city would also lower its insurance costs.

Privatizing sidewalks would bring peace, too, by depoliticizing a permitting process that can often lead to bitter battles at City Hall over where and under what conditions a food cart can operate. The location of a cart, no longer decided following deputations to government committees, would become a simple private matter between food cart vendors and their landlords.

Mayor Ford has said that the city should be in the business of fixing sidewalks and putting out fires, and not in the food business. Actually, it should be in the business of putting out fires, and not in the food or sidewalk business.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and author of Toronto Sprawls (University of Toronto Press), January 28, 2011. 

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