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NEW YORK — America is a land of drive-thrus.
An estimated 200,000 drive-thrus are scattered across this country. Americans visit lanes approximately 6 billion times a year. Leading chains such as McDonald’s, drive-thrus account for 70% of sales or more.
Drive-thrus promise hungry drivers ease, convenience and a juicy burger. But long lines of cars waiting for orders spill out onto American roads in every state from chains like Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. And city representatives, urban planners and critics say the model fails modern cities.
Magnets of traffic and queues, drive-thrus discourage walking, use of public transport and visits to nearby businesses. They also lead to accidents with pedestrians, cyclists and other cars, and are at odds with the environmental and liveability goals of many communities.
A number of cities and regions want the spread to stop: Atlanta lawmakers will vote this summer on whether to ban new drive-thrus in the popular Beltline area. Minneapolis; Fair Haven, New Jersey; Creve Coeur, Missouri; Orchard Park, New York and other cities have banned new drive-thrus in recent years. Some Southern California cities, such as Long Beach in 201[ads1]9, have passed temporary moratoriums blocking new development. Restrictions have also been considered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Mesa, Arizona.
Drive-thrus “don’t support any of the life and vitality and amenities that suggest people might want to live, work or play in a neighborhood,” said David Dixon, an urban place fellow at the design and planning firm Stantec. “Drive-thrus belonged to a much more autocentric world.”
Land of the drive-thru
Drive-thurs first appeared in California in the 1950s, according to the Smithsonian. An early Jack in the Box was a hit with children, who could order their meal through the head of a clown.
The drive-thru model expanded on American roads over the following decades as freeways were built, suburbs spread, and new fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s emerged.
Drive-thrus became a lifeline for chains during the COVID-19 pandemic, as restaurants closed indoor seating. Drive-thru sales will reach $133 billion in 2022, a 30% increase from pre-pandemic levels in 2019, according to Technomic, a restaurant industry consultancy.
Shake Shack and Sweetgreen opened their first drive-thru locations during the pandemic, while Taco Bell, Chipotle and other chains opened stores exclusively serving drive-thru customers.
Businesses switched to drive-thru models because they are more profitable: smaller than sit-down restaurants and require less staff and maintenance.
They make the most sense in car-centric areas, and there are many drive-throughs located far from pedestrian or bicycle traffic. But drive-thrus are often placed in the “definitely worse place for them to be” for traffic safety, said Eric Dumbaugh, a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Florida Atlantic University who studies traffic safety.
They are often intentionally placed along higher-speed arterial roads – busy roads that carry cars from around a region at high speeds – to catch the attention of drivers.
This means that if there is a pedestrian or cyclist at an intersection or sidewalk, drivers have less time to brake, increasing the chances of an accident. Drivers moving along arterial roads also typically focus on the road and the cars around them, and are less likely to be on the lookout for pedestrians.
Drive-thrus can also be hot spots for rear-end collisions and T-bone accidents from cars turning left out of driveways.
Companies “pay no attention to the safety considerations in their design decisions,” Dumbaugh said. And local governments pay lip service to pedestrian safety but still allow that use on arterial roads, he said.
More lanes, more traffic
Companies say they are changing drive-thrus by adding more lanes and technology like AI to speed up orders and reduce potential problems.
Starbucks told CNN that it is aware of the communities its stores are in and is “introducing the right type of store for the needs of that community.” Starbucks is testing different store models in different areas, such as pickup-only stores, drive-thru pickup, and drive-thrus.
But chains that try to deal with congestion by adding more lanes only encourage more cars to come. Accidents are so common that personal injury attorneys around the country specifically advertise to people injured at drive-thrus. Experts say pedestrian safety can be improved by tightly controlling access along arterial roads and locating thoroughfares away from them.
Drive-thrus also don’t support nearby businesses, Stantec’s Dixon said, as people typically just grab their food and drive away.
A better, safer fast food model in these areas is sit-down restaurants and bars that contribute to walkable neighborhoods, he said, or on the first floor of multi-story buildings.
Atlanta City Councilman Jason Dozier proposed a bill this year to block new drive-thrus around the Atlanta Beltline, a pedestrian path along a 22-mile rail corridor. The Atlanta City Council is expected to vote on the bill in August.
Dozier’s bill was a response to pedestrian deaths in the area.
Since 2015, 14 pedestrians have been killed and 47 seriously injured in car crashes around the Beltline area, he said. More than half of these deaths occurred in the last two years.
“It’s a very scary time for pedestrians in the city,” Dozier said. “We need to make sure we can design communities around pedestrian safety.”
In Sugar House, a Salt Lake City neighborhood, the Planning Commission proposed a ban on new drive-thru development in business districts after residents complained that drive-thrus blocked sidewalks, bike lanes and street lanes.
“It puts the vehicle front and center. It goes against the master plan of Sugar House to promote a walkable, mixed-use downtown,” said Levi Thatcher, chair of the Sugar House Transportation Committee.
Charlotte has struggled with clogged roads from cars spilling onto the streets from Chick-fil-A and other fast food lanes during rush hour in recent years.
“Our love of waffle fries is causing even more traffic problems on busy Charlotte roads,” a WCNC TV report said in 2019.
Charlotte has a long-term plan to become a less car-oriented city through investments in rail and other public transport. Building drive-thru restaurants in densified areas clashes with those goals, said Keba Samuel, chair of the Charlotte Planning Commission.
“The more drive-thrus you build, the more car-centric you become — as opposed to something that has multiple mobility options,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to have this multi-billion investment in light rail and still encourage an auto-centric environment. It’s contradictory.”
However, the Charlotte City Council recently approved new Chick-fil-A and Bojangles drive-thrus near public transportation stations.