CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

American Idle

Photo by Pedals/Flickr

In my latest Slate column, I consider the drive-through.

One thing that struck me was the historical novelty of the form; McDonald’s didn’t begin to unroll them until the mid-1970s, and they now, rather shockingly, account for the majority of their restaurant business. It’s a subtle, yet indicative, symbol of how much American society has changed, driving-wise, in a few decades. At one moment, most children, like me, were walking to school, and while we may have driven to McDonald’s, we actually got out of the car to eat our meal (and something like McDonald’s, pre-drive-through, was then an occasional novelty, at least for me).

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This entry was posted on Saturday, December 12th, 2009 at 1:26 pm and is filed under Cars, Cities, Cyclists, Energy, Environmental factors, Pedestrians, Traffic Culture, Traffic safety, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

18 Responses to “American Idle”

  1. Pete Warnock Says:

    I’m guilty of frequenting the Starbucks drive-thru. It’s easier with a toddler and infant.

  2. Tony Toews Says:

    On a different type of drive through I know of a small town credit union that opened up a teller drive through lane (as well as another drive through ATM lane.) They got lots of business moving over from seniors who didn’t which they expected. What they didn’t expect was the business from mothers with small kids who now didn’t have to move kids in and out of the vehicles.

    Also there is an underground tunnel leading from the basement to the second drive through ATM lane. This way they can do the service and cashing of the machine without going outside. Which obviously greatly reduces the risk of robbery.

  3. Tony Toews Says:

    I also recall going through a drive through in Abbotsford, British Columbia. There was a bunch of narrow bushes separating the drive through lane with the neighbour. No sound reducing fence. Then there was about 5 feet of yard and the side of the house. With doors and windows.

    That said I strongly suspect that the entire block was zoned commercial and that, by now almost ten years later, that the house has long been sold for a huge profit.

  4. Richard Says:

    At least bicycles can use the one in the picture.

  5. Abraham Moussako Says:

    If you’re on a bike, its probably less effort to walk INTO the bank, assuming its still open. At night, using the drive thru on a bike is probably more dangerous.

  6. Josh R Says:

    I decided awhile ago that although I might occasionally use a drive through, I would never actually eat the food thus obtained in the car. Not only is it risky driving behavior, but because your attention is divided, you don’t even really taste the food you’re shoving in your mouth, which is no way to live.

    On another note, good point in the article about the safety of walkers and bikers around drive-throughs. If it’s unsafe for a person to walk up to the window, it’s certainly unsafe for someone to walk across the driveway while a customer is leaving the drive through, their attention divided 3-4 ways as they put away their change, settle their drinks in the cupholder, shove fries in their mouth, and oh yeah, steer the car…

  7. MikeOnBike Says:

    @Abraham, walking into the bank is easy. Finding a secure place to lock my bike before I walk into the bank is the hard part. The time to lock/unlock the bike might exceed the time I spend in the bank.

    If I can bring my bike inside the bank, that’s a lot easier. The easiest is a walk-up ATM.

    I’ve used a local drive-through pharmacy to pick up prescriptions on my bike. Much faster and easier than going inside with the bike locked outside.

    I see no reason why biking in a drive-through lane would be riskier than biking anywhere else. Are there any stats on this?

  8. Stewart Clamen Says:

    I can still remember (and get upset all over again when I do) being denied service as a pedestrian at a local Burger King drive-thru window. (This was late at night and they’d already closed the restaurant proper.)

  9. Josh R Says:

    MikeonBike, there’s likely little increased danger to biking into a drive through, an inattentive driver is an inattentive driver after all, no matter where they are. BUT, there’s a chance a biker who gets hit while in the drive through will sue the restaurant (stupid I know, but some people will sue anybody) so the restaurants refuse service as a way of avoiding the issue altogether.

    Bikes and walkers make up a relatively minuscule number of drive through customers, so by the cold numbers it’s easier to say “Screw them” then deal with the risk.

  10. Andrew Says:

    I once changed banks over this. The drive through window opened an hour earlier than the lobby, which was the only convenient time for me to use the bank on my way to work. They said a bicycle at the drive through was an insurance problem.

  11. Steve Says:

    I recall an anecdote from an auto mechanic who was attempting to repair a power window on the driver’s side . Informing the customer of a two-week wait for parts, he was confronted with panic. “But you don’t understand. Everything I eat comes through that window!”

  12. Michiel Says:

    @Josh R: maybe it’s better you don’t taste the food, since the taste is bad or absent ;-)

    Bikers at night should use proper lights on their bike.

  13. Paul Johnson Says:

    In Oregon, and presumably any other jurisdiction subject to the various Vienna Conventions on Traffic, all ways are presumed open to cyclists unless conspicuously posted at the start of the way that it’s closed. I have occasionally pwned fast food places by mentioning this to sympathetic local governments, who either out of legitimate concern for doing the right thing or a need for a quick revenue fix are all too happy to fine drive-thrus per diem until they either post that it’s closed to bicycles or start serving bicycles at the drive thru.

    Then there’s Burgerville, which not only allows bicycles in the drive thru, but actively encourages you to bike thru instead of drive thru (all locations give you a free small drink if you go by bike, most also give a discount on your meal as well).

  14. Ian Turner Says:

    The “bicycle drive thru as insurance liability” story is a red herring. Businesses take all sorts of liability risks all the time. And a collision of automobiles would leave the restaurant with just as much liability as a collision with a bicycle. The reality is that bicyclists are seen as poor and undesirable, and the insurance thing is just a faux justification.

    As noted, this attitude can change overnight in places with a lot of prospective cylist customers.

  15. Scott Says:

    “BUT, there’s a chance a biker who gets hit while in the drive through will sue the restaurant (stupid I know, but some people will sue anybody) so the restaurants refuse service as a way of avoiding the issue altogether.”

    What if a motorist gets hit while in the drive thru? If cyclists are a liability then certainly motorists with their several-tens-of-thousands-of-dollar cars are an even greater one.

  16. Rob Says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the few McDonald’s “walk-up” windows that exist. I spotted one on Manhattan’s Upper West Side over the summer. I imagine they exist in other highly-dense places without access to giant parking lots? I also think it shows that McDonalds will adopt to the local conditions, as long as its profitable. And the success of drive-thrus has less to do with the fast-food companies themselves, and more with the culture of those who use them.

    I’m guilty of using the drive-thu book-drop at the public library when I’m on my bike. Although I guess that’s a drive-thru in reverse, I give them something, not the other way around.

  17. Evan Says:

    FWIW, I’ve found that the number of drive-through dairies here in Southern California have declined greatly. I always thought they were really neat when I was a kid, but I can’t think of any that are still around.

  18. Mark Says:

    I think the “toddler issue” is the major reason for the growth of drive thrus. I never understood the appeal of drive thrus until we had kids. It is a major hassle to get kids into and out of cars, and drive thrus let parents avoid that. Thirty years ago, this was less of an issue as kids were not strapped into the car so much.
    I think the “toddler issue” is the only reason that Starbucks’ drive thru succeed at all – the drive thru at Starbucks will almost always take longer than walking into the store, unless you have a young kid in your car.
    Also, at McD’s, sometimes we use the drive thru just so we can avoid the playland inside.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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