Has the American romance with the drive-through gone sour?

How we get from here to there.
Dec. 11 2009 5:48 PM

We're Thru

Has the American romance with the drive-through gone sour?

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The fast-food companies, perhaps sincerely, say they exclude nonmotorists because they are concerned about safety. But such excuses fail to account for a larger problem. Even if pedestrians aren't waiting in the drive-through lane itself, they generally still tend to be about, crossing from the restaurant to their car (often with children coming from play areas) or walking on a sidewalk in front of the restaurant. If it's not safe for a pedestrian to stand in the drive-through lane, why is it any safer for them to walk in front of it? (In one case, a police officer was struck while directing the traffic in and out of a Sonic drive-in.) The very presence of the drive-through lanes may lull drivers into thinking they are in a car-only space, with only their Chalupa standing between them and the street. Pedestrian safety is indeed one reason many communities don't want any drive-throughs in town and have sought to keep them away. Anti-discriminatory legislation may provide another tack: Would you like fries with that social justice?

Ultimately, the question of whether bicycles or pedestrians should be allowed at drive-throughs may be less important than the question of whether, in any but the most vehicularized places, drive-throughs should exist at all.


Correction, Dec. 14, 2009: This piece originally misspelled Bill Haley's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.