The Case Against Drive-Throughs

Minneapolis is thinking about nixing these consumer-friendly byways. More cities should follow suit.

Image Flickr/Håkan Dahlström
Flickr/Håkan Dahlström

Minneapolis-area lovers of quick and easy coffee, prescriptions, check-cashing, dry cleaning, and Big Macs are up in arms this week, after two city council members floated a proposal to tighten restrictions on urban drive-throughs. Drive-throughs are already banned from a number of the city’s downtown areas, as well as regions included in its “Pedestrian Oriented Overlay Districts.” By expanding those districts, the proposed ordinance would nix the construction of additional vehicle-friendly pathways in an expanded portion of the city, a “concession” to pedestrians and cyclists in an increasingly pedestrian- and cyclist-loving metropolis.

“The streets where a lot of people are walking, on our transit corridors, maybe we don’t want to have drive-throughs at all,” the council member Lisa Bender explained to the Minneapolis Star Tribune Saturday. “If we do, we may want to strengthen our controls of them and minimize their impact on people walking.”

The steel-tongued retribution was quick and fierce. The Star Tribune’s own editorial board aimed its pen Monday squarely at the offending council members, writing that drive-throughs are “an extra measure of comfort for customers”—parents with sick children, the tired and hungry who want food without leaving their cars, etc.

”A danger to pedestrians?” the editorial board wrote. “No more than any other obstacle pedestrians face in a busy city. ...If you want to walk dreamlike, headphones in, Zen in place, find a park path.”

A reduction in crashes

The Star Tribune’s is a nice and satisfyingly-barbed turn of phrase. But it’s not quite factually correct, says Eric Dumbaugh, a traffic safety expert and associate professor at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. “The consolidation of driveways will always lead to a reduction in crashes,” he says. As he points out (and writes in his own research), that includes not only crashes between pedestrians and cars, or cyclists and cars, but also crashes between vehicles.

This is acknowledged by none other than Minnesota’s own Department of Transportation, which has observed associations between the the density of urban driveways (like those created by drive-throughs) and crash rates. In fact, consolidating driveway access is a well-established aspect of the state’s “access management” regime, which works to ensure that roads are efficient and safe. As the Federal Highway Safety Administration put it in a recent safety publication aimed at rural roads: “Every driveway represents potential conflict points between motor vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists.”

Minneapolis’ Hennepin Avenue, part of which would be affected by the new drive-through ordinance. (Flickr/nullrend)

Drive-throughs are particularly dangerous in urbanizing areas, where drivers aren’t used to operating around bicyclists and walkers. As Dumbaugh explains, these drivers are more likely to “automate their driving task”—to look out into the traffic lane beyond, missing the human person right in front of them.

Indeed, it’s exactly the best part of drive-throughs—avoiding all but the necessary human interactions—that make them so perilous for those on urban streets. “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,” Slate noted in 2009.

A tough fight against convenience

Of course, taking that “extra measure of comfort” away from drivers is easier said than done. This is the central tension that lies in most planning, isn’t it? That convincing people to get rid of exactly that which makes their life easier in favor of vague, long-run gains—less pollution! Fewer accidents! Better health!—is a hard, hard job?

“The last thing [mothers] really want to do is go to a drugstore, unhook the kids out of the harnesses, and take them in and get the pills and then go back and hook them all up again,” a Walgreens developer told the Star Tribune, in defense of his plan to open a car-convenient pharmacy in the area affected by the ordinance. But of course, that’s what mothers (and fathers) used to do in the dark time before the mid-1970s, when McDonalds opened its first drive-through. The other good news—for parents, for the elderly, for the very hungry and very lazy—is that the Minneapolis plan wouldn’t kill all drive-throughs, just a couple of construction proposals in a few more pedestrianized parts of the city.

“[The plan] is a home run from a safety perspective, except for the business owners who will complain,” Dumbaugh says. “But I’m a traffic safety researcher and I don’t care about them.”

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