The End of Drive-Thrus?

Photo courtesy of Touch Dynamic 

The American tradition of pulling into the drive-thru lane at fast-food restaurants to order is going to be a challenge in cities across the U.S. as local legislators ban the construction of new drive-thru windows. Despite the convenience of ordering and picking up food in your car, some communities now associate drive-thrus with an ongoing problem in our society: climate change. 

Cities implementing the ban claim that people who wait in their cars for their food release additional carbon emissions into the environment than those who park and eat inside. More broadly, the prohibition of new drive-thrus in certain communities is intended not only to help curb greenhouse gas emissions, but also to improve traffic and promote a healthier diet for Americans.

Minneapolis became the latest city to ban the construction of new drive-thrus, citing air pollution from vehicles as the main factor. The ban is part of the city’s long-term plan called Minneapolis 2040, which includes a goal to cut 80% of carbon emissions by 2050. Officials in Long Beach, California shortly followed as they imposed a six-month ban on new drive-thrus while they study the issue. Other legislations that restrict or prohibit fast-food drive-thrus have also been adopted in communities such as Creve Coeur, Missouri, Fair Haven, New Jersey and Orchard Park, New York. 

Existing drive-thru windows will not be affected by the ban as the zoning changes currently in effect only govern new construction; however, many customers are worried about drive-thru windows  being taken away. This service is extremely helpful for the disabled and the elderly. 

Many consumers on Twitter voiced out their opinions regarding the ban, with one user tweeting, “Came to post this as well. My mother is disabled and some days she can’t stand long enough to cook. She can sit in a car though and grab a bite to eat at a drive-thru. Thank goodness she doesn’t live in one of the cities mentioned. This is absurd in so many ways.” 

A poll conducted by The Today Show, asked 426 people, “Do you think a fast-food drive-thru ban is a good idea?” The survey found that 76% of people voted “No, they are very convenient,” while only 13% of people said, “Yes, there are many around,” while 11% of people were neutral. 

To limit the abundance of drive-thru windows is to deprive the eldery, the disabled and those who do not have time to spare from a convenient and highly-favored service. Drive-thrus are important because they offer customers an easy and user-friendly experience when it comes to ordering their food.

Although supporters of the ban claim that limiting drive-thru windows will help decrease carbon emissions, the National Restaurant Association found that only 25% of restaurant visits in the U.S. occur at a drive-thru window. Some customers even believe that the ban would actually increase the carbon footprint of vehicles as they try to find other alternatives to dining in restaurants. One Twitter user said, “I’m thinking I would drop my wife off to pick up the food/drinks and I’d just circle the block or the parking lot. So more CO2.” 

In addition to its challenging goal of curbing carbon emissions, the drive-thru ban is also promoted as an opportunity to create healthier food environments by discouraging fast-food consumption. Research however, proves otherwise. 

One of the first cities to prohibit new and expanded drive-thru windows of stand-alone fast-food restaurants was south Los Angeles in 2008. RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization, conducted a study examining the ban’s impact on obesity in L.A. County. Researchers found that overweight and obesity rates actually continued to climb in the three years following the ban. 

The lead author of the RAND study Ronald Sturm said, “The South Los Angeles fast-food ban may have symbolic value, but it has had no measurable impact on improving diets or reducing obesity.”

If one fast-food restaurant does not offer a drive-thru window, people can easily drive to another location or an entirely different fast-food restaurant that offers the convenient service. 

Although reducing carbon emissions and fighting obesity are important goals, change should not start with local legislators but with the food industry instead. 

To reduce the time spent in drive-thru lines, fast-food restaurants can improve their drive-thru system to be more efficient. Chick-fil-A’s “face-to-face ordering method” is a prime example that other fast-food restaurants can follow. Curbing obesity can be accomplished if restaurants make a commitment to cut calories and improve nutrition. 

According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, calorie content at the most popular U.S. fast-food restaurants has skyrocketed over the past three decades. “Despite the vast number of choices offered at fast-food restaurants, some of which are healthier than others, the calories, portion sizes and sodium content overall have worsened (increased) over time and remain high,” the study’s lead investigator Megan McCroy said. 

The drive-thru ban implemented by cities across the U.S. may have good intentions, however, its overall goal of cutting carbon emissions and reducing obesity rates is ultimately unrealistic. Customers will find other alternatives to drive-thrus that could increase carbon emissions even more such as ordering from mobile apps. Restricting access to drive-thru windows will virtually have little impact on obesity rates. Change is absolutely necessary for the benefit of our society, but banning drive-thrus that are convenient for the elderly and the disabled is not the solution. Food industries can make as much of a difference as a piece of legislation if they make a commitment to helping the environment and improving American diet. 


Bernadine Sobingsobing is a third year English major. She can be reached at bsobings@uci.edu.