Remember that in drive-through debates, not all of us walk 

Climate change is one of the most serious issues the world faces. Many of the greenhouse gases that trap heat and make our planet warmer come from transportation. So it’s not surprising to see that communities everywhere are urging us to deemphasize motor vehicle trips. We are all asked to do more biking and walking. Use of public transit, where it is available, is encouraged. 

One piece of this effort is in local government policies meant to discourage the use of drive-through services. Communities around the United States have restricted where drive-through services can be located. 

Minneapolis in 2019 became the largest U.S. city to ban future drive-through services at restaurants, banks, coffee houses, pharmacies and other types of businesses. Existing uses can stay but new ones aren’t allowed. This was not wholly unexpected as the city in the past restricted drive-through services in most zoning districts. 

The Minneapolis ban is touted as part of the city’s 2040 plan to decrease greenhouse emissions 80 percent by 2050. Reducing vehicle noise and increasing safety for pedestrians who walk in front of drive-through lanes are other goals of such a ban. 

Two drive-through services issues are playing out in the Twin Cities. A once-popular St. Paul coffee shop drive-through service, which has been closed for several months, is being removed to make way for a patio. The coffee shop drew long lines that blocked other traffic, a bike lane and sidewalks. 

In Minneapolis debate centers on reopening two fast food restaurants and restoring drive-through services. The restaurants were closed when an operator filed for bankruptcy a few years ago. Because those drive-through services have been closed for more than a year, city officials recently revoked future operators’ rights to restore drive-through service at those two locations. 

No one can argue with the dire statistics on greenhouse gases and climate change. Those of us who live with disabilities and who must warily eye every driveway we cross can understand the need for pedestrian safety as well. 

But policy makers also need to remember this: Not all of us walk.  

For many of us, drive-through services are how we get our medication, do our banking, pick up our dry cleaning and laundry, and get our food. We note how many people have relied on these services as the COVID-19 pandemic has gone on.  

The urbanist design movement and its many acolytes all too easily disregard, if not openly scoff at, the need for some of us to have disability accommodations. Too many elected officials drink this particular brand of Kool-Aid and chime in.  

We understand and appreciate that some efforts to ban restaurant drive-through services are seen as ways to promote healthier eating and curb obesity. That’s been a focus in Los Angeles and in many Canadian communities. But whether those bans have been effective in enhancing potential public health benefits are in conflict. One 2015 study in South Los Angeles, reported in the journal Social Science & Medicine, indicated that obesity rates went up after efforts to curb drive-through services and fast food consumption. 

And to again put a disability lens on this aspect of drive-through services, the ongoing personal care staffing crisis means that too many of us now lack staff to help us with meal preparation at home. 

We understand the need for communities that we can easily walk and wheel through. But changes to the community landscape that ban drive-through services and eliminate accessible parking make it harder for some of us to stay in our home communities.  

Yet during too many public policy discussions of drive-through service bans, of eliminating parking spots and of other changes to a community’s landscape that directly affect us, the needs of people with disabilities are not even mentioned. It’s beyond disrespectful. 

Drive-through services, convenient parking and other disability accommodations keep everyone in a community. Without accommodations, we cannot continue to be productive members of places we care about. 

Policymakers need to consider thoughtful options to reduce but not eliminate drive-through options. Can entrance and exit points be better designed? Can there be a limit on the number of drive-through services in a designated neighborhood or area? If several businesses close their doors can one new one go in? Can a drive-through service business relocate to a safer street if possible? 

Are there more ways to reduce vehicle idling? Many places already offer the option to order and pay ahead.  

Solutions are out there. Our “drive-through dilemma” can be solved in ways that don’t exclude us.