Elly Blue / Flickr

Showdowns like this one stand to increase as car-reliance declines.

Utah is poised to pass a law allowing restaurants to ban cyclists and other potential customers who aren't in a car from using drive-thru windows. The bill breezed through both chambers of the legislature in February, and on Tuesday the enrolled version was set for printing—the final step before reaching the governor. Here's the key piece of the final language:

A municipality may not withhold a business license, deny a land use application, or otherwise require a business that has a drive-through service as a component of its business operations to: (a) allow a person other than a person in a motorized vehicle to use the drive-through service …

The bill emerged mere months after Salt Lake City decided to require businesses to serve cyclists at the drive-thru window. As local councilman Luke Garrott told the media at the time, the idea was only natural considering the city's "agenda of walkability and alternative transportation." Prior to that law, businesses had been able to decide for themselves whether or not to serve people who rode through on bikes.

Technically the new law—if signed by the governor—would put the decision back in the hands of businesses. But if history is any guide, that's a de facto move to ban cyclists from drive-thru windows. It doesn't take much searching to find several examples of cyclists or pedestrians being refused drive-thru service. A few recent news stories:

  • In 2014, a man on a bicycle in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, was arrested (then posed for a priceless mug shot) after being denied service at a Taco Bell drive-thru window at 3 in the morning.
  • In 2013, a McDonald's in Portsmouth, England, refused to serve a man on a trailer bike who'd ordered a Happy Meal for his son. (And lest you switch burger chains over that link, know that similar showdowns have occurred at Burger Kings.)
  • In a 2009 incident that went viral, a woman named Sarah Gilbert tweeted about being refused drive-thru service at a local burger joint in Portland, Oregon, prompting the restaurant to change its policy.

There are countless similar anecdotes out there on message boards. And surely more to come. As CityLab's Sarah Goodyear has reported, the drive-thru problem only stands to increase as transportation systems reduce their car-only focus.

On the restaurant side, the resistance comes down to liability. If a cyclist somehow gets hit and injured by a car while in a drive-thru line, businesses don't want to pay the damages. Sometimes that concern is given through the guise of "safety"—a noble cause, of course, though far less urgent for traffic moving at approximately 0 mph—but here's the head of the Utah Restaurant Association, which successfully lobbied for the new Utah bill, being quite blunt:

"We cannot mix bikes and pedestrians with vehicles in our service lanes," said Utah Restaurant Association CEO Melva Sine. "What if someone slips or gets run over? The city doesn't get sued, the restaurant gets sued. Restaurant owners need the flexibility to manage their own risk, just like the city manages its own risk."

If that's truly the fear, there are at least two clear ways around it for state officials. They can release restaurants from liability, as Maine did back in 2007. Or they could stop interfering with cities making fine progress on their own.

About the Author

Eric Jaffe
Eric Jaffe

Eric Jaffe is the former New York bureau chief for CityLab. He is the author of A Curious Madness and The King's Best Highway.

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