Asking "Would you like fries with that?" has become more challenging in Minneapolis. This summer Minneapolis became the nation’s first major city to ban new drive-thru facilities. While the measure is hailed by those wanting a more walkable and bikeable city, it is viewed warily by people with disabilities and their advocates.
The ban also impacts any new restaurants and coffee shops. The ban was adopted in August by the City Council and took effect this fall. Existing drive-thrus are grandfathered in and projects already in the city approval pipeline can proceed.
Other cities around the country have different forms of drive-thru service restrictions; and in Canada, nearly 30 cities have restricted drive-thru lanes, mainly for restaurants.
Minneapolis officials cite climate change as a reason for the ban. The only other Minnesota city known to ban drive-thrus is the suburb of Falcon Heights, which voted to restrict drive-thru lanes more than a decade ago. Baldwin Park, California, which is the home of the famous In-N-Out burger chain, had a nine-month moratorium on drive-thru lanes almost a decade ago, but, according to newspaper accounts, the impetus was a statement against obesity.
Drive-thrus are a source of additional revenue, and some food and beverage industry experts estimate the increased business adds 20 percent or more to the bottom line.
Along with business owners, the Minnesota Council on Disability and the Minneapolis Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities raised concerns. One proposal by disability rights activists, which wasn’t adopted, suggested that businesses have an alternative way for a person with a disability to purchase food and have it brought out to a vehicle.
Margot Imdieke Cross, who leads accessibility work for the state council, said many people with disabilities rely on fast-food for a majority of their meals. "The ban will create a real hardship," she said.
The approved ordinance affects restaurants, coffee shops, pharmacies, banks and any other type of "facility which accommodates automobiles and from which the occupants of the automobiles may make purchases or transact business."
Planning Commission and City Council members contend the ban not only is needed to make the city safer for pedestrians, it also would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents also cited the prevalence of restaurant delivery services, even for fast-food establishments.
The ban has been in the works for the past few years, led by City Council President Lisa Bender. It has support from many groups, including the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
Those against the ban note that for people who have mobility issues, drive-thrus are needed to pick up food and medicine, and to do banking. "New technology and practices have improved access to goods and services; however, it is still a necessity to advocate for barrier removal and equitable access," Ken Rodgers, committee chairman, said in a letter to the City Council.
But some City Council and Planning Commission members dismissed those concerns. One sentiment expressed by Planning Commission Chairman Sam Rockwell is that a ban could lead to building more of a sense of community, as people help older and disabled neighbors meet their needs.
Foes of the drive-thru lanes cite the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which calls for banning new drive-thru facilities. Several Minneapolis neighborhoods already had prohibitions on drive-thru service.
Many other cities have a number of restrictions in place on drive-thru lanes, such as requiring conditional use or other special types of permits. The permits restrict where lanes can be placed, lighting, noise from speaker boxes and other planning aspects. Minneapolis officials noted during the debate that they receive relatively few new drive-thru applications.
Drive-thru windows have long been associated with the fast-food phenomenon. In-N-Out Burger, which opened in 1948, claims to be the first to use a two-way speaker system, allowing customers to order food from the driver’s seat. McDonald’s didn’t open its first drive-thru until 1975, but now the system accounts for the majority of its business, Slate has reported.
With all the changes in the way we dine out, will drive-thrus go the way of drive-ins?
The ongoing debate over "Carbucks" in St. Paul has neighborhood groups and city officials considering what should be done to regulate future new drive-thru services here. While city policies don’t spell out possible bans, there is still debate over the effect of drive-thru service on adjacent communities and on those who share the streets.
Members of the St. Paul Planning Commission are mindful of the recent action taken in Minneapolis to ban new drive-thru services. In St. Paul, there are already zoning restrictions along University and Snelling avenues, as well as in other areas where traditional neighborhood mixed-use zoning is in place. That zoning is meant to promote denser, more walkable, mixed-use redevelopment. Drive-thru lanes would typically not be allowed.
St. Paul’s 2020 comprehensive plan, which is undergoing Metropolitan Council review, calls for measures to make the city more walkable and bike-friendly. But it doesn’t go as far as the Minneapolis’ plan with language to ban new drive-thru services.
In October the St. Paul Planning Commission approved modifications to the drive-thru at the McDonald’s restaurant at University Avenue and Marion Street. The restaurant’s conditional-use permit was amended to allow for reconfiguration of the existing windows for payment and pickup. The change allows a second pickup window for food orders that take longer to prepare.
New drive-thru services, especially for restaurants and coffee shops, may face a tougher time in St. Paul. Several years ago, Hamline-Midway residents managed to block a proposed renovation of a Snelling Avenue Taco Bell, citing ongoing concerns including noise and disruption caused by the existing drive-thru service.
The Planning Commission in 2018 shot down a request for a drive-thru for a proposed new Dunkin’ Donuts and Mac’s Fish and Chips at Hamline and Larpenteur avenues. The commission and neighbors cited traffic concerns as reasons to oppose the project, and it was shelved.
A proposal to develop a Starbucks at Hamline and Randolph avenues drew more than 100 people to a neighborhood meeting earlier this year, with many in opposition. The Starbucks would replace a convenience store and gas station. That proposal has been dormant for several months and it’s not clear if it will proceed.
Opposition is in large part thanks to the Starbucks approved in 2015 at the southeast corner of Snelling and Marshall avenues in Snelling-Hamline neighborhood. The business, dubbed "Carbucks" because of its frequent traffic tie-ups, has been through several city review processes. It’s anticipated that any attempt to revoke the coffee shop’s conditional-use permit would spark a legal fight with the city.
Starbucks has made modifications to the facility in an attempt to reduce long vehicle queues and traffic conflicts, especially conflicts with a bike lane on Marshall Avenue. But complaints persist. Critics say the business never should have been allowed, while others point to the high demand for drive-thru coffee service. There are few if any drive-thru coffee shop windows in the entire southwest quadrant of St. Paul.