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Achieving Balance Among Drive-thrus and Walkable Communities 

by Jill Bahm, AICP, Partner, Giffels Webster

Throughout the US, the interest in creating more walkable communities is intensifying. Residents, including the increasing population of older adults, recognize the value of walking and biking for personal health and wellness, and see the larger community benefits of reducing emissions and improving air quality.

Contrast this intense interest with our vehicle-centric culture that enjoys the convenience and efficiency of fast-food drive-thru restaurants and coffee shops. While drive-thrus have been in our communities for a long time–the first drive-thru opened in Texas in 1921, but the trend picked up steam in the 1970s as McDonald’s opened its first drive-thru in 1975–the drive-thru has become standard practice for nearly every fast-food restaurant, but in many instances results in shrinking interior restaurant seating, or no seating, as national chains explore offering drive-thru service only.

While fast-food restaurants, the majority of which are owned by national chains, insist that drive-thrus are essential for business, they bring a host of safety challenges for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists, as well as increased emissions from idling vehicles. More land is consumed for vehicle stacking to keep waiting cars from extending into the roadway, as well as accommodating bypasses or “bailouts” to let drivers out of the queue, if needed.

Despite some communities prohibiting drive-thrus, it is clear that in most places communities are hesitant to discourage uses that the market demands. If drive-thrus are here to stay, how can communities address the land use conflicts that limit desired improvements to walkability? First, communities should recognize the impacts of auto-centric uses on walkability and then create and implement comprehensive land use policies and zoning regulations.

Of drive-thrus and downtowns

Revival of community downtown areas and the creation of new commercial corridors in suburban areas coincides with renewed interest in walkable communities. Long magnets for community engagement, downtowns and shopping districts generally feature a variety of shops and restaurants, some of which provide quick meals that can be satisfying alternatives to drive-thrus.

When a community resident or visitor has a meal at a local restaurant in a dynamic downtown or commercial district, they may engage with other local businesses and register the community as a place of interest for a future visit. Engagement with local restaurants and businesses help support vibrant and successful communities by ensuring the viability of local destinations for walking, shopping, and socializing. Drive-thru patrons tend to miss out on opportunities to experience the community and contribute to the local economy.

Revival of walkable communities

In general, communities have been planning for a more complete transportation network that accommodates pedestrians, cyclists and others for a number of years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, varying restrictions on travel and gathering in public places changed the ways in which we were able to get out of our homes and experience a sense of community. These restrictions motivated people to go out walking or biking in their neighborhoods, exposing many residents to the true pedestrian experience in their local communities for the first time. 

What many found was less than ideal. As we moved out of our neighborhoods and further into our communities, we found gaps in our sidewalk networks, unsafe road conditions for walkers and cyclists, and a lack of destinations to which we could walk. People started to find their regional shared use trails, but realized those trails were primarily accessible by driving to the trailheads.

These realizations may be the catalyst for the stronger demand for walkability that is happening in many communities, especially in suburban areas where people feel the limitations of the built environment. Since these communities were initially designed around the personal vehicle, creating non-motorized infrastructure took a back seat to maintaining and expanding our roadways.

While for some, walking and bicycle riding are forms of recreation, for others, they are modes of travel that support independence. According to AARP, by 2030, one in five persons in the US will be age 65 or older; by 2034, people over age 65 will outnumber children aged 17 or younger. This shift in demographics and an increase in the number of Americans living with disabilities also is fueling walkability movements. Walkable communities help ensure independence, especially when driving is no longer an option.

The ubiquitous drive-thru

Another impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was the rise in drive-thru and curbside pickup services. Across the US, orders at drive-thrus grew by 20 percent from February 2020 to February 2022, according to a study by the NPD Group, a global retail data company. Restaurant Business magazine called 2021 the “year of the drive-thru,” citing many food chains expanding and upgrading drive-thrus. Increasingly, fast-food restaurants are designed around drivers in vehicles rather than diners in a restaurant. Images of restaurant chains designing small buildings elevated above three or four drive-thru lanes are almost other-worldly. While a seeming feat of operational efficiency, there can be some significant downsides for a community.

Safety is a big concern for all users of the roadway–motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. The wide driveways built to accommodate traffic entering and exiting the drive-thru location can be approached from several different angles with vehicles moving simultaneously in different directions. Potential conflicts include rear-end crashes and crashes with pedestrians and cyclists who may be trying to navigate sidewalks (if provided) while dodging turning vehicles. 

Distracted drivers also contribute to unsafe traffic conditions when in line at the drive-thru. While waiting, drivers may become distracted with their phones. Or, once they receive their order, they may check it or dive into it without noticing how traffic has changed in just a few minutes. This compounds the pedestrian safety issue with distracted driving risks.

From a land use perspective, creating businesses to which one must drive contributes to traffic congestion and takes up land that could be used in a way that better serves the community. According to the US Department of Transportation, the average US household produces about 9.5 vehicle trips a day; half of which are within three miles from home. Enhanced non-motorized infrastructure and places to which people can walk can alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety. 

Zoning ordinances facilitate coexistence

When planning a walkable community, consider where goods and services are needed. Think about where residents live, including families with children, singles, and older adults. Armed with this information, evaluate the ways in which the proximity of vehicle-oriented businesses, including drive-thrus, will affect the residents and their access to community destinations that support independence and freedom of mobility, including shops, restaurants, coffee shops, playgrounds, libraries, etc. Updating zoning ordinances in these areas to limit the number of drive-thrus will support businesses that serve people within the walkable community.

Zoning standards for buildings and sites can be improved to promote walkability. For example, allowing buildings closer to the road improves the visibility of storefronts and enables pedestrians to see activity inside; moving vehicles to the back of buildings for access to drive-thrus and parking minimizes direct exposure to emissions for pedestrians and mitigates other safety risks.

Additional zoning standards could include:

  • Moving vehicles away from view and screening drive-thru areas with building elements and landscaping to improve the pedestrian environment, making it more comfortable and pleasant for people to walk or ride
  • Requiring outdoor seating that is attractive and protected from idling vehicles
  • Limiting impervious surface coverage and increasing landscaping to reduce stormwater runoff  
  • Improving landscape standards to promote lower maintenance plantings and requiring long-term maintenance
  • Enable enhanced landscaping to serve as stormwater retention/detention areas, creating an attractive, inviting outdoor environment 
  • Increasing standards for building materials and building design to reinforce a sense of permanence and quality for development in the community
  • Requiring sidewalks with all new development 
  • Requiring pavement markings and limited signage to direct pedestrians to logical and safe passages/crossings and alert drivers to where they should expect to see pedestrians
  • Provide pedestrian connections to buildings–make them highly visible by making them obvious: putting them front and center, using bright pavement markings and lighting
  • Share access and driveways–limit driveway access across sidewalks and trails to minimize interactions between cars and people

Effective zoning starts with good planning

Most municipalities evolved to serve the motorist first, the pedestrian and cyclist second and third. Our fast-paced, on-demand culture supports driving over walking, partly due to infrastructure shaped to serve vehicles and partly due to our societal need for speed.

With the rising demand for walkable communities, it is incumbent on municipalities to create zoning ordinances that support the changes sought by residents and business owners. A major step in creating walkable communities is to develop land-use policies and zoning standards to make our transportation networks safer for all, whether transportation is people-powered or vehicle-powered.