Which Cities Have the Most Food Trucks?

August 25, 2014

Thanks to a Twitter-driven census of America’s food trucks, researchers from the University of Michigan and Northwestern University have found 4,119 trucks in 289 cities across America. Every one of these rolling eateries has opened since 2008. Drawing on this data, I’ve pulled together America’s top 10 cities for food trucks. 

Two things stand out at first glance. First, size matters. Larger cities have more food trucks, that much is clear. More diners mean more incentive for specialization. But you’ll also see that the list is full of cities that are relatively spread out, such as Houston. Putting a restaurant on wheels is especially useful for serving far-flung communities. Second, weather is less of a factor than you’d think. Portland isn’t exactly known for sunny days or Chicago for balmy winters. My guess is that only unseasonable or unexpected weather actually cuts down on food truck customers.

A little less obvious conclusion is that the top cities for food trucks tend to have an educated and diverse workforce. Washington and San Francisco stand out in this regard. Researchers also found a correlation with the number of craft brewers and farmers markets, which they believe is part of “the new authenticity economy” favoring the local and artisanal. It would seem that the line from education to eclectic dining runs through the stomachs of the young, educated and well-off.

Of particular interest to me is the finding that high rents are correlated with more food trucks. As Tyler Cowen notes, “high rents push out quirky food,” and food trucks are known for just this sort of culinary innovation. Urban rents, particularly in cities with restrictive zoning, tend to be a high fixed cost that eats into what could otherwise be paid for high-quality foods and a good chef.

Nevertheless, onerous licensing and zoning regulations are catching up with food trucks in many cities. That is why Ed Glaeser argues for renting out public spaces to food trucks and instituting a “one-stop permitting process that aims at providing speedy approval.” These measures help cities fulfill some of their basic duties—governing public spaces and protecting public health—while quickly freeing food trucks to operate.

Without the enormous costs of real estate and complex regulation, food trucks are welcome to experiment. The freedom to experiment in turn spurs on yet more innovation and entrepreneurship, an outcome that should be sure to please every hungry city-dweller.