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Why cities seek to prohibit new drive-throughs

Drive-thrus are common in America.

There are about 200,000 drive-throughs in this country. Drive-through lines are used by Americans about 6 billion times a year. Drive-thrus make up 70% or more of sales at major chains like McDonald’s.

Drive-thrus offer to feed hungry drivers quickly, easily, and with a juicy burger. But at places like Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Dunkin, cars wait in long lines on the roads in every state of the US. And city leaders, urban planners, and critics say that the model isn’t working for modern cities.

Drive-thrus are traffic and congestion magnets, and they prevent people from walking, taking public transportation, and going to nearby businesses. They also cause accidents with pedestrians, cyclists, and other cars, and they go against the goals of many towns to protect the environment and make places more pleasant to live in.

Several cities and areas want to stop the sprawl: This summer, Atlanta politicians will decide if the popular Beltline area should be closed off to new drive-thrus. In the past few years, towns like Minneapolis, Fair Haven, New Jersey, Creve Coeur, Missouri, and Orchard Park, New York, have banned new drive-thrus. Some towns in Southern California, like Long Beach in 2019, have put a temporary stop on building new homes or businesses. Pittsburgh and Mesa, Arizona, have also thought about putting limits on things.

David Dixon, an urban places fellow at the design and planning company Stantec, said that drive-thrus don’t support any of the things that make people want to live, work, or play in a neighborhood. Drive-thrus were a product of a society that was considerably more focused on cars.

The land of drive-thrus

The Smithsonian says that the first drive-thru was in California in the 1950s. Kids loved the first Jack in the Box because they could order their food through the head of a clown.

In the decades that followed, more people ate in their cars as highways were built, neighborhoods grew, and new fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s opened.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when restaurants had to close their indoor waiting areas, drive-thrus saved the day for chains. Technomic, a restaurant industry consulting company, says that sales at drive-thrus will reach $133 billion in 2022, which is 30% more than in 2019, before the pandemic.

During the pandemic, Shake Shack and Sweetgreen opened their first drive-thrus. Taco Bell, Chipotle, and other chains also opened shops that only serve drive-thrus.

The conversion to drive-thrus was motivated by the higher profits to be had from their reduced overhead in comparison to traditional restaurant layouts.

They make the most sense in places where people mostly drive, and many drive-thrus are far from places where people walk or ride bikes. However, according to Eric Dumbaugh, a Florida Atlantic University professor who specializes in traffic safety and works in the division of urban and regional planning, drive-thrus are frequently located in dangerous spots on the road.

They are often put on high-speed arterial roads, which are busy roads where cars go fast and come from all over an area, to get drivers’ attention.

This means that drivers have less time to stop if a pedestrian or biker is in an intersection or on a path. This makes it more likely that an accident will happen. Drivers on main roads also tend to pay more attention to the road and the cars around them and less to people walking in the street.

Drive-thrus can also be dangerous places for cars that turn left out of driveways and hit the back of the car in front of them.

Dumbaugh said that when companies make design choices, they don’t think about safety at all. He said that local officials talk about pedestrian safety but still let these things happen on main roads.

Congestion increases with lanes.

Companies say they are making changes to their drive-thrus by adding more lanes for cars and technology like artificial intelligence (AI) to speed up sales and reduce problems.

Starbucks told that it cares about the neighborhoods where its shops are and “opens the right kind of store for the needs of that neighborhood.” Starbucks is now experimenting with a variety of retail formats, including pickup-only locations, curbside pickup from vehicles, and drive-thrus.

But chains that try to fix traffic problems by adding more lanes only make more cars come. Accidents happen so often that lawyers all over the country advertise to people who have been hurt at drive-thrus. Experts say that the safety of pedestrians can be improved by limiting entry along main roads and putting drive-thrus in other places.

Dixon of Stantec also said that drive-thrus don’t help nearby companies because most people just grab their food and leave.

He said that restaurants and bars with places to sit down that help make neighborhoods livable, or those on the first floor of buildings with more than one floor, are better and safer places to get fast food in these areas.

Cities retreat

This year, Atlanta City Councilman Jason Dozier put forward a bill to stop new drive-thrus from being built near the Atlanta Beltline, which is a 22-mile walking path along an old train corridor. In August, the Atlanta City Council is likely to vote on the bill.

Dozier’s bill came about because of the deaths of pedestrians in the area.

He said that in the Beltline area, 14 pedestrians have died and 47 have been badly hurt in car accidents since 2015. Over half of those deaths have happened in the last two years.

Walking around the city at the moment is “very scary,” as Dozier put it. Community planning must prioritize pedestrian safety.

Residents of Sugar House, a neighborhood in Salt Lake City, said that drive-thrus were getting in the way of sidewalks, bike paths, and driving lanes. In response, the city’s planning commission suggested a ban on new drive-thrus in business districts.

“It puts the car right in the middle. Levi Thatcher, who heads up the Sugar House transportation committee,” said this, “It conflicts with Sugar House’s vision for a walkable town center including a variety of businesses.”

In recent years, Charlotte has had trouble with cars spilling out of Chick-fil-A and other fast-food drive-thrus into the streets during rush hour.

In 2019, WCNC said, “Our love of waffle fries is making traffic problems on Charlotte’s busy roads even worse.”

Charlotte has a long-term plan to spend in rail and other public transportation to make the city less dependent on cars. The chair of the Charlotte Planning Commission, Keba Samuel, said that building drive-through restaurants in places that are getting more crowded goes against these goals.

“The more drive-thrus you build, the more you focus on cars instead of having more ways to get around,” she said. “Despite the multibillion-dollar light rail project, promoting a car-centric culture makes no sense. It goes against itself.”

But the Charlotte City Council just recently gave the go-ahead for new Chick-fil-A and Bojangles drive-thrus near bus stops.

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