In the hours after Hurricane Dorian hit Halifax last week, residents wasted no time restocking a vital necessity: Tim Hortons coffee.
Long lines of vehicles formed at local franchises for post-storm double-doubles, blocking traffic and prompting emergency officials to warn residents to stay home and clear the roads for recovery efforts.
But it doesn’t take a hurricane for city officials to rethink the drive-thru, an institution of car-centric suburban lifestyle that’s being called into question in light of climate change, congestion and public health concerns.
Municipalities across North America are re-examining drive-thru windows, with many — including Toronto — putting in restrictions. But hundreds still exist in suburban neighbourhoods across the GTA.
Given environmental concerns, the Star took to the roads to find out why we’re still using them when — according to our unscientific survey — they’re not even that convenient. In fact, we found seven out of 10 times, it’s faster to just dash inside to grab your coffee than wait in an idling car.
“I think that they were first designed as a real convenience, you just drive through, grab a coffee and go, but people are sitting in lines for 20 minutes, and is that really saving them time? Is that really helping our roads, our congestion, our air quality or our emission reductions?” asked Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson’s City Building Institute.
“This isn’t specific to a hurricane, it’s specific to how we design our neighbourhoods and communities and how we’ve been designing them since the car became king.”
A 2018 study out of the University of Alberta found 27 municipalities across the country — from Windsor to Kelowna — put full or partial bans on drive-thrus from 2002 to 2016 to reduce noise, pollution, traffic, and protect local economies, with many cities opting to ban them in denser downtown cores but allow them in the suburbs.
Toronto passed a bylaw in 2002 that does not permit new drive-thrus in residential and mixed-use zones where residential is allowed, or in designated centres in North York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, Yonge/Eglinton and the downtown of the former city of Toronto. They are allowed in industrial and commercial zones, provided they meet certain conditions.
A few GTA cities, including Markham, Ajax and Mississauga, have also put restrictions on drive-thrus in place, according to the U of A study.
On Monday, from about noon to 5 p.m., two Star reporters drove to 10 restaurants — McDonald’s, Tim Hortons, Wendy’s and one Starbucks, in Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York, all places that had both a drive-thru and ample free parking. One reporter waited in the drive-thru of each place, while the other ran inside and ordered at the counter.
In general, it took less time to hop out of the car and run in than to go through the drive-thru, waiting behind cars and at one point even a school bus.
There was one MacDonald’s in Scarborough where it took almost double the amount of time to order inside, but pedestrian customers were also competing with busy lunch-hour Uber Eats and Skip The Dishes pickup.
So why do we still do it?
Burda said she sees drive-thrus as more the symptom of suburbs that were designed around cars rather than a cause of our car dependency.
“It’s part of the postwar highway system suburban sprawl that created a car-centric neighbourhood where you basically had to get into your car to do everything,” she said.
Burda said we all need to drive less — a 2018 report from Ontario’s Environment Commissioner found transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the province — but that’s hard to do when you live in a neighbourhood that’s built around cars.
The real solution lies in building more transit, and housing around it, in the suburbs so that people don’t have to always drive, Burda said.
“It’s not saying don’t drive, it’s just saying maybe we need to more thoughtfully think about where retail is located, how it affects driving patterns, how it affects congestion,” she said.
That’s a sentiment Minneapolis has taken seriously. Just last month, the U.S. mid-western city “completely eliminated” new drive-thrus from being permitted, said Lisa Bender, city council president there.
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The ban fits into the wider moves it’s making to improve transit and walkability, she said.
“It made sense in the context of how we’re growing and where we’re going as a city,” Bender said. “It’s really more about continuing to make it easier and safer to get around outside of your car.”
But there’s also a clear climate change connection.
“We have a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050,” Bender said. “We simply can’t meet our climate change goals without encouraging more people to walk, bike and take transit.”
For Burda, bans on drive-thrus can be “sticks” to get people to drive less and reduce emissions, especially in neighbourhoods where they’re causing congestion.
The latest data from Restaurants Canada — a national association representing the food industry — shows 25 per cent of quick-service sales across the country are done via drive-thru purchases, said spokesperson Marlee Wasser.
Wasser said many customers continue to buy food and beverages while remaining behind the wheel for many reasons, including weather, disabilities or simply busy lifestyles.
“We appreciate the many perspectives that must be considered on this issue,” she wrote in an email. “We always encourage our members to work with municipal authorities to ensure their drive-thrus don’t cause a hazard to pedestrians, increase traffic congestion or create any other kind of concern for the communities they serve.”
Wasser said that environmental sustainability is “top of mind” for Canadian restaurant operators, and cited a recent survey that found eight out of 10 food operators agree it’s key to their business success.
The goal for restaurateurs is to continually balance “the demands of their customers with best environmental practices” in ways that are both accessible and safe, she said.
Reached for comment on the issue, Tim Hortons issued a short statement saying the franchise’s goal is to provide guests with ordering options that work best for them, and that things continue to evolve.
“We now offer more than just dine-in or drive-thru as guests can place orders for pick up through our mobile app and, in certain cities across Canada, guests can have their Tim Hortons delivered through our delivery partner Skip The Dishes,” the statement reads in part.
Urban planner Ken Greenberg welcomes bans on drive-thrus, saying they’re not only harmful to the environment, but also contribute to a growing lack of social interactions and increased loneliness.
Greenberg said the “culture of dependency” on the automobile has been entrenched in people’s lives for generations. There’s currently a big movement to walk away from that dependency, with cities investing in complete streets programs, public transit infrastructure and the promotion of active living.
But it’s not going to be easy, he said.
“You don’t undo 75 years of investment in a certain way of life in a few days. It’s a major undertaking.”