America's Car Culture Collides With Bans on Drive-Thrus

It's as American as the automobile. For a quarter of a century, the drive-thru window has been a fixture on the US scene - letting people pick up everything from lunch to laundry to a new spouse without ever turning off their engines.

But now that friend to working parents everywhere is coming under increasing attack by a small but growing number of towns.

Carrboro, N.C., recently banned drive-thrus from its downtown to try to protect its small-town way of life.

A continent away, San Juan Capistrano and Sierra Madre, Calif., have banned the construction of new drive-thrus, while Santa Monica, Burbank, and other southern California communities have imposed various restrictions - most citing aesthetic reasons.

Now, if Councilman Lee Morris gets his way, Atlanta may become the first major city to trade in convenience for better air.

Concerned about the city's reliance on the automobile, he has proposed legislation outlawing the construction of new drive-thrus.

To him, Atlanta's alleged love affair with the automobile looks more like an addictive relationship. He calls his proposed ban (which is still in committee) "the first step in a 12-step recovery program."

"We have ground-level ozone problems. We are contributing to the global-warming problem, ... and we are the third-to-eighth deadliest city in the world for pedestrians," he says.

While he admits that the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to prove that idling in a drive-thru significantly contributes to air-pollution problems, Mr. Morris says Atlanta, a consistent violator of the Clean Air Act, must start somewhere.

"We design our communities around the car, we don't design communities around human beings," he complains. "As a matter of policy, we [cannot] continue to encourage and promote and foster auto dependence."

PASSION notwithstanding, Morris's mission would prove daunting in any major city. In Atlanta, it may be impossible. Atlanta drivers cover more miles per capita per day - 36.5 - than do motorists in any other metropolitan area in the world.

"We're so reliant on our automobiles. They're another symptom of a larger mindset," says Edward McNally, spokesman for Commute Connections, a program of the Atlanta Regional Commission. "We're congested because we're all in cars - we're taking 4,000-pound cars to buy half gallons of milk."

More than just another roadside attraction, for more than a quarter of a century, fast-food restaurants, banks, dry cleaners, and wedding chapels have colored the uniquely American landscape.

Coffee shops are grinding out a niche, too: Chock Full o'Nuts is franchising Quikava, a drive-thru coffee and bakery shop. Both CVS and Eckerd Drugs say drive-thrus are part of their standard prototype. And in Chicago, you can pick out flowers or pay your respects at drive-thru funeral homes.

Why such proliferation? Profit and convenience. According to the National Restaurant Association, about one-third of the $103 billion spent on fast food last year came from drive-thru business. For industry leader McDonald's, it's closer to 50 percent.

Ron Fennel, senior vice president of the Georgia Hospitality & Travel Association (which represents the Georgia Restaurant Association), contends that a prohibition is not only fundamentally antibusiness, it runs counter to the general direction of America.

"Society has become mobile. [It] demands convenience," he says. He warns that banning drive-thrus will force fast-food restaurants and other establishments to do business elsewhere. Moreover, since drive-thrus provide greater access for the disabled, Mr. Fennel predicts that prohibitions could create complications for restaurants trying to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

While he calls Morris's goals "laudable," he says they won't be achieved by a drive-thru ban.

Morris disagrees: "Merchants - whether they be banks, dry cleaners, fast-food restaurants - will go to an area where their customers are."

On one point, Morris and Fennel agree: Banning drive-thrus will make life less convenient. But for Morris, it's a necessary price to pay for cleaner air.

"We as a society are going to have to suffer a little bit of inconvenience to overcome this dependence [on cars]," he warns.

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