January 25, 2013 By Jessica Renee Napier
Food trucks — or restaurants on wheels — have become such a popular phenomenon in the United States that many mobile kitchens now cater events, participate in food truck festivals and receive reviews on popular restaurant websites.
In Boston, the food truck industry gained such popularity during the past couple of years that city officials created a pilot project to offer city services based on the mobile truck trend.
In November, the city began piloting the City Hall To Go truck. The bright red vehicle makes rounds in Boston’s neighborhoods, offering a menu of city services to constituents. A retrofitted vehicle from the police department's bomb squad, the truck will begin a regular schedule in April, following the harsh winter weather.
“The idea is to bring city services out into the neighborhoods,” said Molly Dunford, the project’s chief coordinator. “We want to make it as easy as possible for people to access the city.”
During the current pilot, the city alerts citizens two weeks in advance of the truck’s next location. Dunford explained that the truck’s location and schedule are promoted via neighborhood newspapers, social media, newsletters and word of mouth.
“We’ve been surprised,” she said. “You’re never sure when you’re using social media who you’re reaching, and we’ve seen young people and elderly people coming to use the truck. People love it.”
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said that the recent launch of the City Hall To Go truck builds on the city’s mission to shake up the status quo when it comes to municipal services.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for residents to get personal, timely service from their city,” he said, “and the truck helps us to do just that for a whole new set of constituents.”
When the official program launches in April, the truck will canvass neighborhoods three to five times per week. At that time, the city will be able to measure the cost for maintaining the service. But calculating the truck’s return on investment is about more than just dollars and cents. Its success will be measured by how well it saves time and improves accessibility for residents who need to use city services.
The truck allows citizens to request a marriage certificate, apply for a dog license, pay property taxes, pay or dispute parking tickets, and register to vote. City Hall To Go employees are listening to the types of services that the public would like the truck to offer. Resident feedback will serve as the basis for adjustments to available services via the truck.
“Just because it’s not the way we do it now, doesn’t mean we can’t offer those services,” said Dunford. “Everything is on the table. If it works, it’s great. If it doesn’t, we’ll re-examine that. There’s nothing that we want to say, ‘Nope, we can’t do it.’ Maybe it can’t be done right now, but let’s figure out why.”
Another benefit that citizens appreciate is the ability to interact with a human instead of a machine. One of the goals for deploying the mobile truck is for people to have a pleasant experience with city hall.
“The Internet is great,” Dunford said, “but sometimes the people want to see and talk to a city employee.”
Dunford said that prior to the project's launch, Boston officials were unable to locate other cites offering a similar mobile truck service. However, since the pilot began, they have received phone calls from other cities interested in using a similar model.
Main image courtesy of the city of Boston
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