Peak Drive-Thru

Cross-posted at and

Wells Fargo Bank has shuttered the drive-thru bank part of its branch at University and Emerald in Minneapolis (on the St. Paul City Line). [Google Street View image shown.]

This may be for several reasons, the branch is immediately across the street from a Central Corridor LRT station (under construction), its road access has consequently been constricted. It would make a nice redevelopment opportunity, so this may simply be a real estate transaction. But perhaps there are other reasons. We have achieved peak travel in the US, and internet and electronic banking has replaced much drive-thru business.

I, like many pedestrians and bicyclists, am annoyed with the hostility the drive-thru gives to non-auto modes. I was reprimanded for walking up to a drive-thru ATM at a Maryland National Bank in Columbia (after many acquisitions, now part of Bank of America) … of course there was no walk-up ATM there, or I would have used that. If I don’t want to or can’t deal with a person, I still have to walk-up to the drive-thru ATM at my Credit Union on University Avenue, which still does not have a walk-up (and their machine looks circa 1980). The annoying part is not just the wrong height of the ATM and the poor User Interface, it is the cross-subsidy non-driving customers give to the driving customers, who pay no extra for the larger building and infrastructure they require.

Drive-thru businesses have a long history in the US, dating at least from 1930 in the banking sector. Obviously gas stations were drive-thru, and I suppose it expanded from there. I had a fascination with these types of businesses as a child, both because of their (at least banks) use of pneumatic tubes, and just because of the futuristic feeling one had doing business from a car. I was impressed when I visited my aunt who went to a drive-thru dairy store in the Philadelphia suburbs. In the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, we did not have these, though drive-thru banks were allowed in the Village Centers, at first drive-thru restaurants were not, and certainly not drive-thru groceries. We eventually got a Fotomat knock-off, and I was fascinated by the miniaturization of retail.

Visiting some southern town (I’m guessing Tallahassee, but it was a couple of decades ago) when I was in college, there was the drive-thru liquor and gun store (like this one, but different), everything for good-ole-boys to have a really good time on a Friday night. There is also a drive-thru romance store in Alabama, which seems less awful and gives a different meaning to the term ‘quickie’.

Of course there are drive-thru ‘quick-serve’ restaurants, and even Starbucks, which was once aiming to be a third space, in addition to these other oddball collections. Tom Vanderbilt in a Slate article on the subject notes McDonald’s gets 65 percent of US sales from drive-thru.

An hour of Googling does not give me a solid number of drive-thrus in the US, but Rheitt Allain estimates about 100,000.

There is better data on all restaurants, apparently the number of restaurants in the US is dropping about 2 percent according to Nation’s Restaurant News to 574,050 in 2011. One assumes drive-thrus are dropping as well, though independents are experiencing most of the fall. Overall, spending for food away from home has been dropping the past few years as a function of the recession and high gas prices.

The total number of bank branches seems to have peaked in 2009 (i.e. it was down in 2010, whether this is short term or permanent is of course unclear), while the number of institutions is way off the peak due to consolidation and merger.

All of this portends that the US may have saturated the drive-thru market, and the direction is moving down. It is still speculative, and future data will be required to confirm this, but if so, we may be facing a more walk-up America.

8 thoughts on “Peak Drive-Thru

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Dammit, that was one of the last closest Wells Fargo branches to the U. I was gonna go there today, even. They closed the one in Dinkytown already.

    What's a man on a bike with an empty wallet to do?

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        its not the same. my small local StP bank has an agreement w/ WF to use their ATMS, but only at branches, not their 'external' ones. thus, to get cash, i now have to go to Franklin ave, Central & Hennepin NE, or DT Mpls. (sux)

  2. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    Interesting post.

    I was surprised while living in Ohio for a few years by a new type of business I'd never seen, which I assume is similar to the liquor & firearm store you link to. There were many drive-thru beverage stores (being a non-drinker, I can't recall whether they served liquor, but I can only assume they did, and that it was a substantial portion of their revenue). But these stood out because they were literally drive-thru establishments (you literally drove into one side of the building and out the other side – you didn't just pull up to a window on the side of the building).

    I also have fond memories of riding with my father in his old pick-up truck to the "Indian Colony Smoke Shop", a tobacco store located on an Indian Reservation selling tax-free cigarettes.

    I wonder if we can really assume that the drop in the total number of restaurants is resulting in fewer drive-thru's. It seems like the major fast-food drive-thru chains are still going as strong as ever.

  3. Alex BaumanAlex

    As someone who has had the cops called on me for walking up to a drive-thru (so they claimed; the Wells Fargo on 7th & Olson) I really appreciated this post.

    By the way, the East Lake McDonalds recently disclosed to the City Planning Commission that they get 70% of their sales from drive-thru:

    They estimated that the Uptown McDonalds did less drive-thru business, but admitted they'd never seen figures.

  4. Alex TsatsoulisAlex T

    Back when I worked in St. Paul, the Wells Fargo on Grand Ave was my bank – unfortunately they didn't open the lobby until 9am (when I had to be at work), and refused to serve me when I tried to bike through their drive thru – which was staffed with people at 7am. That's 99% of the reason they lost my business; their message to me seemed to be that I wasn't considered an important enough customer unless I drove.

    I switched to a credit union (Wings Financial) which let me bike through their drive thru on Franklin Ave.

    1. Nathaniel M Hood

      I've had a similar problem with Wells Fargo. They refused to serve me when on my bike. I inquired about the issue later and the reason cited was "safety". I asked the phone on the other end of the phone to elaborate, but they couldn't – merely reciting company policy I imagine. I'm not sure whose safety their looking after?

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