Preliminary Investigation into Ice Cream Trucks as a Public Health Nuisance

There are tons of ways in which cities influence the health of citizens. Policy, governance, infrastructure, mobility, and economic opportunity are all very large-scale ways in which our cities shape the way we live, and subsequently affect our health and wellbeing. However, life in cities is not always so structured. There are tons of informalities and unique circumstances that define the cities in which we live, and every element of city life has an impact on residents in one way or another. Looking critically at some of these more niche instances presents a unique opportunity for the study of cities, because they are also a crucial element of city living. My focus here, which is given away by the title, focuses on ice cream trucks in the city; however, I frame my discussion in a way that may be a bit unexpected.

We can think about the relationship between ice cream trucks and health in a number of ways. Some connections are quite obvious: ice cream is, objectively, an unhealthy food item and one could make an argument that any vendor selling high calorie, fatty, sugary, decadent (eg. delicious) foods is negatively affecting the health of the populations they serve. However; ice cream trucks also have a health impact beyond the nutritional value of the delicious treats they provide. Many ice cream trucks require diesel engines to keep their freezers working, and their products frozen. These engines will remain on even when the trucks are parked for an extended period of time. Consequently, there are pollutant and air quality concerns that we can associate with ice cream trucks. These diesel engines release toxic chemicals into the air, which is a detriment to local and global environmental protection efforts. Additionally, city dwellers and frozen dairy product fans alike will be breathing in this diesel exhaust, which has serious health risks and outcomes associated with prolonged exposure. Furthermore, ice cream trucks tend to draw in crowds of people (often children) towards active streets, which can increase the potential for pedestrian-vehicle accidents. Beyond these easily observable health concerns related to ice cream trucks, they also could be negatively impacting our health more covertly.

Noise pollution refers to any elevated, consistent sound levels that negatively affect environmental and human health. All types of city sounds increasingly contribute to citywide decibel levels, which poses a significant (but invisible) public health concern. Noise pollution is associated with increased stress and anxiety, elevated blood pressure, sleep loss, impaired adolescent development, and hearing loss to name a few examples. Ice cream trucks contribute to city noise in two ways: by attracting customers with their playful jingles and also from the noise of their constantly-running diesel engines.

I wanted to better understand how ice cream trucks affect residents within New York City; thus, I’ve conducted some exploratory research to investigate the impact of ice cream trucks in the city. I opted to pull New York City 311 data, and analyze it using python pandas, in order to start building a narrative about ice cream trucks in the city. While the information I have pulled does not allow for any direct causal (or even correlational) results to be inferred about public health and ice cream trucks, it provides some elementary descriptive information that is still interesting. New York City 311 data, dating back to 2010, is publicly available for analysis through the NYC Open Data website. I had two large questions that I wanted to address in my high-level exploration of ice cream truck noise complaints in the city: 1) do ice cream trucks contribute substantially to noise complaints filed in New York City and 2) do certain boroughs issue more complaints for ice cream trucks?

It’s important to note that this analysis exclusively looked at noise complaints that were fielded by the Department of Environmental Protection. Many noise complaints, often residential and commercial grievances, are also directed towards the NYPD but this information didn’t seem appropriate for this investigation. My analysis showed that since 2010, there have been 557,737 noise complaints filed in New York City, 18,586 of which correspond with noise complaints filed specifically against ice cream trucks. The pie chart below shows the percentage breakdown of the most common noise complaints received by the Department of Environmental Protection. While only 3.3% of these noise complaints are specific to ice cream trucks, it is still the 7th most common complaint type overall which should not be completely disregarded. From an incidence standpoint, 18,568 complaints represents a substantial number of 311 calls being made!

The second piece of information gathered is a breakdown of the boroughs in which these noise complaints came from. When looking at spatial distributions of health in cities, there are huge disparities in disease prevalence and outcomes, as well as environmental justice between neighborhoods. Thus, it felt important to investigate if certain boroughs have been sending in significantly more 311 complaints. In the future, it would be even more interesting to look at a more specific, neighborhood-level, breakdown of where these 311 service requests are being serviced to see if certain localized areas are specifically struggling with the “nuisance” of ice cream trucks. The bar graph below shows the complaint distribution by borough, and indicates that generally, there aren’t colossal incidence discrepancies between four of the five major boroughs with the exclusion of Staten Island, which has a very small number of complaints (278, to be exact).

This exercise was an entertaining way to start a preliminary conversation about the potential public health impacts of ice cream trucks within the city. There are tons of unique, somewhat covert, elements of cities that are prime for thoughtful critique and analysis. This article is barely even scratching the surface, but will hopefully inspire more critical thinking and in-depth research at the intersection of urbanism and public health.

Note: This article is published as part of an assignment for Introduction to Urban Data and Informatics taught at Columbia GSAPP.

Sources and Additional Readings

BBC. (2019, May 2). Ice cream vans: Could air pollution make them a thing of the past? — CBBC newsround. BBC News. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/48121279.

Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). EPA. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/dera/learn-about-impacts-diesel-exhaust-and-diesel-emissions-reduction-act-dera.

Noise pollution: Environmental pollution centers. Noise Pollution | Environmental Pollution Centers. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://www.environmentalpollutioncenters.org/noise-pollution/.

Frost, M. (2019, October 18). Dumbo residents are sick of smelly, noisy ice cream trucks. Brooklyn Eagle. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://brooklyneagle.com/articles/2019/10/18/dumbo-residents-are-sick-of-smelly-noisy-ice-cream-trucks/.

National Geographic Society. (2019, July 15). Noise pollution. National Geographic Society. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/noise-pollution/.

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