Cities, Stop Bending the Rules for Drive-Thru Businesses

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The biggest problem with the rezoning? The restaurant in question is in an area slated for transit-oriented development, across the road from a light rail station. It’s among nearly 2,000 acres of land that Charlotte rezoned in 2019 to encourage walkable urban development in the vicinity of the Blue Line. Although the area is dominated by auto-oriented chain retail right now, it is intended to evolve away from that form over time. This is why Chick-Fil-A had to ask for an exception from the normal rules to operate the most auto-oriented possible use—an exclusively drive-thru establishment—in this location. And Charlotte granted the exception.

As an opinion column in the Charlotte Observer by Paige Masten observes, “Holmes and other transit advocates have a point: granting exceptions is pretty contradictory to the goals that Charlotte has set for itself in recent years…. It’s yet another reminder that even Charlotte’s best ideas seem to be crippled by its inability to follow through on them.”

Masten’s column also reveals what happened to Holmes for his advocacy. When Holmes arrived the next morning to his job as an operations manager at a different Chick-Fil-A, his book pulled him aside and fired him for speaking ill of the company online. (Sadly, under at-will employment law, Holmes’s firing was almost certainly legal.) When he posted on Twitter about the incident, Holmes received an outpouring of support and even a job offer (albeit too far away to accept).

For Holmes’s part, he told the Charlotte Observer that he does not regret speaking up, even though the timing is awkward, with a baby on the way at home. He said that he was angered by the city’s lack of commitment to its own plans.

Charlotte’s City Council’s willingness to bend their own rules at the request of a national chain business is sadly typical. Such businesses tend to throw their weight around with city councils, and for years they’ve told us that they need drive-thrus, that their customers want drive-thrus, and that allowing them is the price of doing business. And cities, more often than not, bend the knee, even when their land-use plans call for discouraging or disallowing such designs.

In some cases, like the Charlotte one, these petitions for special treatment begin to amount to a sort of corporate gaslighting. Approved along with Chick-Fil-A was a drive-thru (again in a transit-oriented area where it would not normally have been allowed) for Fifth Third Bank. The bank somehow persuaded most City Council members this exception was necessary, even though Fifth Third was also on record that it would still build the bank branch even if the city voted down the drive-thru. As for the Chick-Fil-A, through some Orwellian logic, planners suggested in the approval hearing that a drive-thru-only business would make the area more pedestrian-friendly. (Huh?)

The truth is, all of these national chains have urban-format stores in their repertoire of designs, and often these locations are tremendously successful. Cities should not be afraid to impose design standards that meet the community’s needs and that don’t jeopardize long-term planning for the public realm—even when that means calling the bluff of a major fast-food chain, bank, or pharmacy.

A Costly Mistake to Undo

Unfortunately, drive-thru businesses are tremendously problematic for people outside a vehicle. They create hazardous crossing points where it’s easy to be hit by an inattentive driver, render all types of bike lanes less functional and safe, and break up the urban fabric, leaving unappealing dead zones. They also simply eat up a lot of precious urban land and contribute very low value compared to a traditional, walkable development pattern—a point illustrated by Strong Towns’ widely cited Taco John’s case study.

I wrote at length in 2020 about these hazards and others, arguing, “No, We Still Don’t Need Drive-Thrus,” even despite their rapid growth during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are other ways to offer convenient and safe take-out access to your business that aren’t so destructive of cities.

And once you’ve allowed a drive-thru, it’s very difficult to backtrack—even when it proves to be unusually problematic. This is the lesson of St. Paul, Minnesota’s infamous “Carbucks.”

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