The Mobile City

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

AZUL: 12PM-3PM@The Brig - Abbot Kinney and Palm in

Venice; 6PM-9PM@La Brea/Pico Billboard Eco Art - 4829

West Pico just east of La Brea

If the above is Greek to you, you're looking at a Twitter update from the Kogi BBQ Truck, a Korean BBQ taco truck (yes, Korea-style tacos) that has become instantly as ubiquitous to Los Angeles as police helicopters and chihuahuas. Kogi hit on the formula that has changed the entire business model of the food truck: by posting regular updates on Twitter, devoted fans know when and where to come swarming in. As opposed to the Mexican taco truck model, which is to stake out a corner semi-permanently and hope people find you, the Kogi truck is truly mobile because people only have to look online to know exactly where it is at any given moment. 

Kogi truck

Kogi now has 36,000 followers (some of which you can see waiting over an hour in the photo above). And while some of the attention on Kogi is clearly a fad, the fun and accessibility of the Twitter/taco truck combo have created a boom in mobile eating.

Planetizen's offices seem to be at Ground Central of the truck craze, with 5 trucks and counting stopping by on a regular basis. Bool BBQ (a clear copy of Kogi, but delicious nonetheless), The Green Truck (organic food), a true taco truck, King Kone (ice cream), and the Sprinkles truck (decadent cupcakes). Today I even saw an old-school hot dog stand on the Miracle Mile. 

Sprinkles cupcakes

So what is the impact of this mobile food phenomenon? As Nate Berg observed last week, it is in many ways an expression of the informal economy. On the down side, permanent restaurants nearby face competition they didn't count on. The nearby Organic-To-Go restaurant is none too happy about The Green Truck, even reportedly resorting to calling the cops. In that respect, the mobile business subverts careful planning and adds a touch of chaos that the shaky world of retail doesn't need right now.  But maybe the trucks just create a greater sense of destination to an area and all businesses win. As William H. Whyte observed, "Food attracts people who attract other people."

Another advantage is that the mobility of the trucks means that public spaces become flexible.Trucks can drive in and sell their wares during the lunch rush, then clear out just as kids are coming to the park to play. They can arrive at events and feed people as they wait in line, and even respond to reported crowds that gather spontaneously. 

To me, the real story is the combination of mobility and instant notification that these trucks represent. It's very enterprising and American, and it exploits social media in all the right ways. What if everything you needed to do was mobile? What if the DMV truck made the rounds of the city, and you could step outside and take care of your expired registration without hauling yourself over to the bad part of town? What about dry cleaning? What would a Mobile City look like?


Tim Halbur is communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).



Ian Sacs's picture

and the music?

but what kind of annoying music do these trucks crank out over loudspeaker? or is driving local residents mad not part of the business model?

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

no music, actually

I've yet to hear a single note come out of these trucks. They understand that rocking the boat in their temporary environment any more than attracting a crowd is bad for business.

The Kogi truck does tend to attract a party scene, but that's usually because they're following some other activity, like parking in front of an art opening.

What about the gas guzzlin?

Food trucks and stands are horrendously inefficient users of energy. They often run their stoves and appliances off of a generator with an enormous battery and of course, they burn a lot of gasoline getting around town. On the other hand, the stationary restaurant and/or DMV runs off the grid (an inefficient energy source but ultimately better) and do not burn any gas since they stay put. I agree that the idea of a mobile city is tantalizing, but it seems impractical and unsustainable.

And I know you will say that the gas used by the taco stand is ultimately offset by the gas that would be used by customers to get to a stationary restaurant, but I don't buy it. The customer can arrive by bike, bus, or train, all of which use less energy than a large truck that's hauling around heavy equipment.

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