The War On Drive Thrus Has Begun

Photo: AP

Drive thrus had their moment; namely, the 1950s, when there was apparently nothing better to eat than processed meat and partially gelatinated, nondairy, gum-based beverages lightly tossed to you out of a window. Thankfully, we as a society have moved past this terrible time and now have a plethora of tastier and healthier options. The bar was very low on both fronts.

It is with this in mind that I urge you to choose carefully which side of the coming war on drive thrus you plan to enlist on.

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Yes, that’s right, they’re coming for the drive thrus, and by “they” I mean the Minneapolis City Council, which has banned drive thrus from all new buildings. This is the first big American city to do so, and I pray to all the deities that it is not the last.

From a Minneapolis Public Radio report:

Council president Lisa Bender says the city had already been limiting them.

“We’ve already restricted drive-throughs over the years in a number of ways, through pedestrian-oriented overlay districts and other tools. There’s a map included in the materials allowed today and it’s actually quite limited today, but this just says that we will not have any new drive-thrus in the future,” Bender said.

Proponents of the ban hope it will cut down on vehicle noise and idling, and make sidewalks safer.

While drive thrus may seem like an innocent symbol of Americana, they have major downsides, especially in urban areas. For one, they require several more driveways than a regular parking lot, which serve as obstacles for pedestrians and cyclists. One study in Florida found fast food restaurants are associated with a significantly higher risk of crashes, probably because drivers are more focused on getting that first handful of deep-fried potato salt sticks rather than avoiding other humans with their vehicle.

Even putting those risks aside, drive thrus increase vehicle idling time, which in turn increases emissions. In 2012, The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported that idling in a drive thru line (of course this was about Tim Hortons) for 10 minutes with a three-liter engine uses about .06 gallons of gas. That might not sound like much, but as of 2017 McDonald’s said 70 percent of U.S. sales are through drive-thru windows. Starbucks, with its 14,000 U.S. stores, is also making a major push for more drive-thru windows.

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According to a 2018 study by QSR Magazine, the average wait at an American drive thru window was 3.9 minutes. I couldn’t find a good estimate for how many Americans use drive thrus every day, but to give a sense of scale here, let’s return to The Globe and Mail’s estimate: “If every Canadian driver reduced idling time by just three minutes a day, it would reduce carbon emissions by 1.4 tonnes a year. That’s like taking more than 196,000 cars off the road for a year.” Naturally, these figures would be higher for the more populous United States.

It is for these reasons I humbly suggest that the overall fix here—parking one’s car and walking into the business one is patronizing—should rank very, very low on the list of inconveniences one is willing to fight over as more and more of life’s little pleasures are cancelled so we, as a species, can prevent catastrophic climate change.

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After all, you can still have your crappy processed meat. For now.

Correction 2:24 p.m. EST: a previous version of this article stated Minneapolis is the first U.S. city to ban drive thrus. San Luis Opispo, CA banned them in 1982.

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About the author

Aaron Gordon

Senior Reporter, Investigations & Technology, Jalopnik