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NEW YORK – America is the land of crowded cars.
An estimated 200,000 cars crossed are scattered across this country. Americans visit driveways about 6 billion times a year. Leading chains such as McDonald’s account for 70% or more of sales.
Drive by drive hungry drivers promises ease, comfort and delicious burgers. But long lines of cars waiting for orders are spilling onto US roads in every state from chains like Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. City officials, city planners and critics say the model is failing modern cities.
Traffic and congestion magnets, and car congestion discourage walking, using public transportation, and visiting nearby businesses. They also lead to accidents with pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles, and conflict with the environmental goals and livelihood goals of many communities.
A handful of cities and regions want the sprawl to stop: Atlanta lawmakers will vote this summer on whether to ban new cars in the popular Beltline. Minneapolis. Fair Haven, New Jersey; Crave Core, Missouri; Orchard Park, New York and other cities have banned the use of new cars in recent years. Some cities in Southern California, such as Long Beach in 2019, have gone through temporary moratoriums preventing new developments. Restrictions were also considered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Mesa, Arizona.
David Dixon, an urban researcher with design and planning firm Stantec, said the drive-by does not “endorse any of the life, vibrancy, and amenities that people might want to live, work, or play in a neighborhood.” “The drive belongs to a more car-centric world.”
Land driving through
Drive-thurs first appeared in California in the 1950s, according to the Smithsonian Institution. The early Jack in the Box was a hit with kids, who could order their meal through a clown’s head.
The drive-thru model expanded on American roads over the following decades as highways were built, suburbs sprung up, and new fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s emerged.
Drive-thrus has become a lifeline for chains during the COVID-19 pandemic, as restaurants have closed indoor seating areas. Sales through drive-thru reached $133 billion in 2022, up 30% from pre-pandemic levels in 2019, according to Technomic, a restaurant advisory firm.
Shake Shack and Sweetgreen opened their first locations during the pandemic, while Taco Bell, Chipotle and other chains opened stores serving drive-through customers exclusively.
Companies have turned to regular drive-in models because they are more profitable: smaller than sit-down restaurants, and require fewer staff and maintenance.
It makes more sense in car-centric areas, and there are many cars that are positioned away from pedestrian or bicycle traffic. Often a car is located in the “absolutely worst place for them” for road safety, said Eric Dombaugh, a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida Atlantic University who studies traffic safety.
They are often deliberately placed along high-speed arterial roads—busy avenues that transport cars from around the area at high speeds—to attract drivers’ attention.
This means that if there is a pedestrian or motorcyclist in an intersection or sidewalk, drivers have less time to brake, which increases the chances of an accident. Drivers moving along arterial roads usually focus on the road and the cars around them, and are less likely to be on the lookout for pedestrians.
Drive-thrus can also be hotspots for rear-end collisions and T-bone accidents from cars veering left out of lanes.
Dumbo said that companies “have no regard for safety considerations in their design decisions.” He said local governments pay lip service to pedestrian safety but still allow such uses on arterial roads.
More lanes, more crowds
The companies say they are changing the payment system by adding more car lanes and technology such as artificial intelligence to speed up orders and reduce potential problems.
Starbucks told CNN that it understands the communities in which its stores are located and “offers the right type of store for the needs of that community.” Starbucks is testing different store models in different regions such as pick-up-only stores, curbside pickup and drive-thru.
But chains trying to tackle congestion by adding more lanes encourage more cars to come. Accidents are so common that personal injury attorneys across the country specifically advertise to people injured while driving. Experts say pedestrian safety can be improved by tightly managing access along arterial roads and locating drive-throughs away from them.
Drive-thrus also doesn’t support neighborhood businesses, Stantec’s Dixon said, because people usually grab their food and go by car.
The best and safest fast-food model in these areas, he said, are restaurants and bars with seating options contributing to walkable neighborhoods, or on the first floor of multi-story buildings.
Cities are declining
Atlanta City Councilman Jason Dozier proposed a bill this year to ban new car traffic around the Atlanta Beltline, a pedestrian walkway along a 22-mile rail corridor. The Atlanta City Council is expected to vote on the bill in August.
Dozier’s bill was in response to infantry deaths in the area.
He noted that since 2015, 14 pedestrians have died and 47 have been seriously injured in car accidents around the Beltline area. More than half of these deaths occurred in the past two years.
“It’s a very scary time for pedestrians in the city,” Dozier said. “We need to make sure we can design communities around pedestrian safety.”
In Sugar House, a neighborhood in Salt Lake City, the Planning Commission proposed a ban on new car development in business districts after residents complained that driving was clogging sidewalks, bike paths and drive lanes on the streets.
It puts the car front and center, said Levi Thatcher, chair of the Sugar House Transport Committee. “It goes against Sugar House’s master plan to promote a walkable, mixed-use city centre.”
Charlotte has suffered from dead ends due to cars spilling onto the streets from Chick-fil-A and other fast-food lanes during peak hours in recent years.
“Our love of waffle fries is causing even more traffic problems on Charlotte’s busy roads,” said a television report from WCNC in 2019.
Charlotte has a long-term plan to become a less car-oriented city through investments in railroads and other public transportation. Building restaurants in densely populated areas runs counter to these goals, said Kiba Samuel, chair of the Charlotte Planning Commission.
“The more drive you build in, the more car-centric you become — as opposed to something with more navigation options,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to have this billion-dollar investment in light rail and still encourage a car-centric environment. It’s contradictory.”
However, the Charlotte City Council recently approved the new Chick-fil-A and Bojangles near public transit stops.
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