Editorial: Cutting through Chicago’s food-truck traffic jam

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Food trucks parked in tow zones on Wacker Drive between Monroe Street and Adams Street at lunch hour. | Sun-Times photo by Rich Hein.

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Whether they offerAsian curry or maple bacon cupcakes, food trucks contribute to a flourishing food scene inChicago. The industrygot a lift in 2012 when the City Council passed an ordinance that allowed hot food to be prepared on trucks. We were psyched. We’ll take a freshly made carne asada taco over a shrink-wrapped sandwich any day.

But the expansion of food trucks in Chicago has been anything but smooth. Food-truck operators say City Hall imposes too many restrictions, and so they openly flaunt the rules while city regulators look the other way. Operators break the rules on where they set up shop and routinely ignore two-hour parking limits, the Sun-Times’ Dan Mihalopoulos and ABC7 Chicago’s I-Team found in a joint investigation. Vendors say they can’t make a living if they play by the rules.

We’d like to see theindustrythrive, although not at the expense of brick-and-mortar restaurants that are a big part of Chicago’s economy. City Hall needs to rewrite its rules for food trucks to strike a better balance between the two competing industries and — this is essential — create incentives for food-truck operators to expand to neighborhoods where there is a shortage of restaurants.

The current rules are a fiction. Write new rules — and enforce them.

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Thus far City Hall mostly has turned a blind eye to the violations, probably because everybody know the rules are hopelessly out of sync with reality.

Officials from the Chicago Transportation Department have no record of citations being issued, and the city’s business and consumer agency has levied $1,000 fines against just five operators in four years. The city’s police department and health department have done little better, collecting about $37,000 in fines in 62 cases of food trucks violating the rules.

On paper, Chicago has some of the toughest restrictions in the nation on food trucks, according to a 2015 report in the Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy by then-law student Elan Shpigel, now a Chicago attorney. He found that among the 10 largest U.S. cities, only Chicago and San Antonio impose proximity restrictions on food trucks. Chicago’s ordinance bans food trucks from operating within 200 feet of restaurants.

That 200-foot ban is a sticking point for food-truck operators and Ald. John Arena (45th), whovoted against the ordinance in 2012. He said it was too heavy-handed with restrictions, noting that the presence of a single restaurant can prohibit food trucks from setting up for business in an area with heavy foot traffic. This happens, he said, despite a shortage of restaurants overall in a neighborhood.

But there are many rule-breakers out there.Some vendorspark in front of restaurants or outside the mobile food vehicle stands designated by the city. Others line up in tow zones or use metered parking. The 2-hour time limit is ignored.

If this marriage is going to work, City Hall needs a workable planwith input from leaders from the food-truck industry and restaurants. Somefood trucks still won’t survive. But that’s life in a big city.

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