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?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The drive-through is where one American obsession—mobility—meets another: consumption. Lately, though, this societal combo platter has come under fire, as people question the drive-through's environmental impact, its place in the evolving landscape of obesity (a 1,420-calorie Hardee's Monster Thickburger without having to leave your seat!), and even who has the right to step up to its crackly intercom.

There has always been something odd in the encounter between automobility and architecture; the driver momentarily breaks her sense of hermetic enclosure, while the fast-food employee briefly thrusts himself out of the window, the two meeting amid the sickly sweet commingling of ambient grease and tailpipe exhaust. The car driver doesn't fully shed her sense of vehicular privacy and has a seemingly easy means of egress (surveillance cameras notwithstanding), which might explain why drive-up windows have become a particular locus of pranks (employees have been subject to sophomoric raps and "fire-in-the-hole" beverage assaults), deviant social behavior (driving naked), and crime (although here the car driver, temporarily exposed, is as much at risk as the employee).

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It's not clear who built the first drive-through restaurant (although In-N-Out trumpets that it used the first speaker system in 1948). But the drive-through's central place in mainstream culture is actually rather new: McDonald's didn't open its first drive-through window until 1975, in Sierra Vista, Ariz., home to a nearby Army base. (One bit of lore alleges the drive-through was created so soldiers could order food without being seen in their fatigues.) Now, however, drive-throughs account for some 65 percent of McDonald's U.S. sales—a stunning demonstration of the radical shift in traffic culture, and increase in driving, since the early 1970s. The window has become so crucial that McDonald's actually demolished an outpost that was slated for renovation in San Luis Obispo, Calif., after the city upheld its ban on drive-throughs. (A company spokesman said, "We can't build a million-dollar McDonald's and not have a drive thru. We just can't do it.")

The drive-through was the spiritual successor, of course, of the drive-in restaurant, which still haunts our imagination with its carhops on roller skates, rock music coming through tinny speakers, and root-beer-laden trays attached to the window. But that was car culture 1.0: We were still trying to achieve some marriage of driving convenience and the desire to interact in public. The drive-through, on the other hand, is an adjunct of the growing American commute. People are now too time-starved even to leave their cars, much less sit around and listen to Bill Haley. * (Commuter culture is taking hold around the globe, too: As a Burger King exec told the Wall Street Journal, speaking on the emergence of drive-throughs—ventanillas—in Latin America, "everybody becomes more of a drive-through, hurry-up-and-eat-on-the-run kind of culture.")

The drive-through is a place predicated not on sociability but on pure efficiency. One imperative is to human contact; as QSR magazine (for "quick service restaurant") notes, "wireless headset technology has been credited with increasing traffic by as much as fifty cars an hour at some McDonald's stores." Other time-savers include stochastic queuing models, multilane drive-throughs (a perception-management tool as much as anything else, as research shows visibly longer lines deter would-be drive-through customers), and technologies like "Clear Sound," which "processes all sounds present at the drive-thru lane and eliminates extraneous ambient noises such as idling engines, mufflers and nearby traffic." Speaker clarity, as it happens, is just one of a set of factors rigorously examined each year by QSR, along with "speed" (Wendy's was tops, 134 seconds per vehicle) and "accuracy" (Chick Fil-A order-fillas managed to get 96.4 percent of orders right). Popeye's, if you're keeping track, seemed to be near bottom across multiple categories.

Fried chicken is no longer the only thing available at drive-throughs, of course: In the past few decades, the drive-through model has undergone category creep. Drive-through flu shots are the latest innovation, joining such services as pharmacies (though you might want to check your order), banks (though the number of windows is said to be shrinking thanks to electronic banking), and, in Southern California, drive-through dairies. Some 23 states, including Arizona, still permit drive-through liquor stores; New Mexico, which once led the country in drunk-driving fatalities, banned them in 1998, though some dispute the correlation between the ban and the lower rate of DUI deaths that ensued. The country now boasts a drive-through department store, a drive-through strip club, and even a drive-through politician. China has even planned a drive-through museum, appropriately dedicated to the car—though it may simply be Dubai-style architectural vaporware.

But despite the Stakhanovite quotas being met by the Bluetoothed cadres across the land, all is not well with the drive-through. The facilities saw a 4 percent drop in business in 2008 due to the recession. And—more threatening still—a number of communities have recently passed anti-idling ordinances, some of which implicate even the fastest drive-through windows. In Kingston, Ontario, for example, the town has been at loggerheads with Canadian doughnut giant Tim Horton's over the legality of drive-throughs under new legislation. The firm hired a wind engineering consultant, who reported: "[T]he congestion that occurs in the parking lot, together with the start-up emissions and emissions from the extra travel distance to get to and from a space, all contribute to produce somewhat higher emissions per vehicle" than those produced by drive-through customers. Perhaps, but I tend to handle company-sponsored data with more care than a to-go cup of McDonald's coffee: I've been to many Tim Hortons', and I've never noticed great driving distances in the parking lots. There's also the fact that some drivers use the drive-through and then park. Not to mention that idling stints longer than 10 seconds produce more emissions than restarting the engine. "Drive-throughs are better for the environment than parking lots are," a company spokesperson argued. Environmentally, this is a bit of a Morton's fork: Parking lots are hardly the equivalent of natural wetland restoration. Another energy-efficiency expert estimated that queued drivers wasted at least $103,000 in fuel in one year at just three drive-through locations near his home.

Meanwhile, people who would actually contribute no emissions at a drive-through window—pedestrians, cyclists, and the like—haven't exactly been having it their way. Any number of carless individuals have broached the drive-through fortress, only to be rebuffed with vague rejoinders about "company policy" (though there are some exceptions). Larry David, in Curb Your Enthusiasm, played the idea of restricted access at the drive-through for laughs. Locked out of his car, awaiting a ride from wingman Jeff, he ambles up to a nearby Jack-in-the-Box, where only the drive-through is open; he dutifully queues with the cars but is refused service (eventually bumming a "lift" so he can order).

Funny, yes, but David is onto a real problem here.  The proliferation of late-night and 24-hour drive-throughs has led, because of concerns about crime, to an increasing number of places with what amounts to a "no car, no service" policy. One of the ironies in the creation of these zones of spatial exclusion is that they often occur in areas where fewer people have access to a car. Perhaps the logical extension of the whole trend is the drive-through only facility, which restricts nonvehicular access at any hour, as this Seattleite found at a Starbucks. That the coffee chain, which once resisted drive-throughs as too "fast food," should now exclude pedestrians and others entirely is one thing; that the facility was built in a neighborhood with new light rail and burgeoning transit-oriented—and thus pedestrian generating—development is even worse.

But not everyone is taking drive-through restrictions lying down. One Portlander—a cycling mom denied service at Burgerville—went viral, forcing a public change of heart from the company. And cyclists aren't the only ones clamoring for access: A Minnesota woman suffering from degenerative arthritis, driving a Pride Mobility Celebrity X scooter, was refused service at a White Castle, whose policy is to serve only licensed motor vehicles. (She is reportedly weighing a lawsuit.) Then there's the curious issue of Amish horse-drawn (and thus no-motorized) buggies, which seem, at least according to several accounts, to patronize fast-food and bank drive-throughs in Ohio and elsewhere.

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.

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