Drive-Thrus are Bad for Cities and Saint Paul Should Stop Permitting Them

Earlier this month, the Saint Paul Planning Commission approved another drive-thru in the urban core, confirming a conditional use permit (CUP) for a 1,800-square-foot, one-story Taco Bell restaurant on a 16,500-square-foot lot with the vast majority of the remaining land used for parking and a drive-thru lane. The location is just over 1,000 feet from the intersection of the Green Line light rail and A Line arterial bus rapid transit (aBRT) lines, which together (in non-COVID times) have over 45,000 daily riders. I think this was a bad decision, and voted against it because approving a new drive-thru next to St. Paul’s two largest transit investments flies in the face of a whole bunch of specific Green Line plans, city-wide plans and goals.

The only rendering provided with the recent Border Foods application. | Image: City of Saint Paul

But what does this really mean? Why should you care?

To make a long story short, drive-thrus are bad for cities in general, but they are especially bad next to well-used transit. There are three main reasons why we should stop permitting them in cities like St. Paul.

The drive-thru curb cuts at the Taco Bell on Snelling. | Photo: Author

Bad for Sidewalks

Drive-thrus are particularly bad in walkable, urban areas – anywhere that a lot of people use the sidewalks. The reason is pretty simple: they generate a lot of traffic onto and over the curb cuts in the sidewalk. People using drive-thrus are often distracted, holding a bag of food and paying attention only to the oncoming traffic on a typically busy street. If there’s congestion, cars will pull up and over the sidewalk to wait, blocking it for people walking. Inevitably, cars end up driving over what should be safe, secure, and inviting pedestrian space. This is unpleasant anywhere, but doubly so for sidewalks in an urban core, or anywhere with lots of pedestrians.

The drive-thru effect is especially harsh for vulnerable sidewalks users, like the elderly, children, or people living with disabilities. When they were designing both the Green Line and the A Line, thanks to pressure from disability advocates, Metro Transit took great pains to make sure both transit lines had level boarding, making it easy for people in wheelchairs or with other mobility assistance devices to roll on and off, without having to have a bus driver strap them in (as is the case with regular buses and bus ramps). The devil is in the details when it comes to designing streets safe and accessible for people with disabilities – things like curb cuts, ramps, and reducing conflicts between drivers and pedestrians. Getting it right makes a huge difference.

This video highlights how small design details like curb cuts and sidewalk width affect mobility for people. | Video: District Councils Collaborative of Saint Paul and Minneapolis/YouTube

Another fundamental problem with drive-thru curb cuts is that they all but guarantee ice will remain packed on the sidewalk in winter. As anyone who has tried to plow a bike lane well knows, cars pack down snow into a very thick ice layer that is all but impossible to shovel or scrape. No amount of shoveling with anything other than a blowtorch can solve this problem.

Bad for Pollution

People don’t usually think about it, but drive-thrus generate all kinds of pollution. There’s the noise pollution of people’s car stereos, engines, and the squawk of the intercom box. There’s the paper and plastic pollution coming from the packaging that invariably accumulates around the line of cars.

The worst kind is the particulate pollution that comes directly from the tailpipes of a line of cars idling each day and night. I did a study a while back where I measured PM2 and PM10 particulate levels in the Rondo neighborhood, a mile or two east of Snelling in St. Paul. The basic gist is that particulate pollution is measured on the block-by-block level, and lots of idling cars trigger an increase. This is exactly the stuff that causes asthma and other lung problems that disproportionately impact poor people and communities of color throughout the city. At peak times in Starbucks drive-thrus it takes almost 15 minutes to get a cup of coffee (I’ve measured it), and that’s true for car after car, nonstop through the morning and afternoon.

An example of how particulate pollution can vary in Saint Paul, block-by-block, depending on proximity to busy streets or highways. | Image: Author

That kind of particulate pollution harms workers and people living nearby. In the case of the Snelling Avenue Taco Bell, there’s a large affordable housing development directly next to the site, one that provides affordable Single Room Occupancy apartments to dozens of people. Normally, drive-thrus are banned this close to residential zoning, but that regulation does not apply to supportive housing facilities like this one, even though we’re still talking about people living and breathing next to a drive-thru generating particulate pollution. This is a great example of how a small land use decision can impact people’s health in a very direct way, with impacts falling most especially on the poor and people of color living in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, even if they don’t own a home there.

Bad for Climate Action

I shouldn’t have to explain climate change in 2020, and I won’t, except to say that everything is much worse than we thought. Siberia has spent the entire summer melting and burning at the same time. California is on fire for what seems like the 10th year in a row. A new record for temperature — 130º — was just set in Death Valley, California. And there’s zero chance that the Federal government is going to do anything to reduce carbon emissions without a huge political sea change. (Haha, get it?) Instead, the Trump Administration is opening up the arctic for oil drilling, gutting regulations, and actively trying to make climate change worse than it already is (which is very bad).

From the Climate Action and Resilience Plan: the city has an ambitious goal to reduce carbon emissions by reducing driving. | Table: City of Saint Paul

It’s up to cities like Saint Paul to lead on climate action in this country, which is why the City adopted an ambitious set of climate action goals last December. One key to meeting those goals is reducing the fast-growing carbon emissions from transportation — mostly individual cars and trucks. They city set targets of reducing transportation emissions by 2.5% each year (!) until 2050. That will be difficult, given the recent trends in the exact opposite direction. If not for COVID-19, we already would be very far behind.

This is why permitting more drive-thrus is the wrong thing to do. Drive-thrus increase and incentivize driving, and lead us away from the ambitious but necessary reforms we’ve adopted as a city. If St. Paul doesn’t take action on climate change, who is going to?

Climate Change is absolutely an equity issue because by far the biggest impacts of climate change are on vulnerable, poor people in places like the Caribbean, Africa, Central America, India, Indonesia, and other countries with little ability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. What kind of message are we sending those people by insisting on idling in our cars while waiting for $2 tacos? Is drive-thru convenience more important than preventing floods, famines, and droughts for billions of people in the global south? Taking action on climate change means making tough decisions like having to park, unbuckle your seat belt, and walk 25’ to eat a burrito. This is the least we can do to help prevent the unfolding catastrophe harming billions of poor people around the world.

It’s the Cars, not the Tacos

Saying “no” to a drive-thru Taco Bell is not about the tacos or the hours or the people eating the tacos or whether the salsa is authentic. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions about fast food, and it’s fine to have restaurants open in neighborhoods providing affordable food for people, day and night. But at the very least, we should demand that our restaurants be designed in a way that helps Saint Paul achieve its goals. At the very least, we should recognize that drive-thrus designs harm the city’s most vulnerable people.

Drive-thrus are popular with fast-food businesses, especially corporate chains, because they allow restaurants to cut down on costs. (One estimate I heard from an earlier zoning debate: a drive-thru Starbucks provided 40% higher profits than a walk-in Starbucks.) This might seem like a moot point during COVID-19 — and it is, sort of — but with drive-thrus, chains cut expenses like having a public bathroom, having a place for people to sit and eat, or serving people on foot in their immediate neighborhood. Instead, they design their business model around a steady stream of customers coming in from elsewhere and idling in cars.

Border Foods knows how to build urban, walkable restaurants. | Photo: Getty

It’s not about the tacos, because it doesn’t have to be this way. There are lots of options for providing food to people on Snelling Avenue that do not erode our sidewalks, health and climate. My favorite St. Paul fast-food taco joint, Boca Chica Taco House on the West Side, has its COVID protocols down to an exact science, with a walk-up window, picnic tables outside, and an in-person waiting-room arrangement that makes it easy for people to get tacos day and night. There’s no reason why we can’t ask for the same or better in the Midway.

Heck, for my money, any Lake Street taco truck in a parking lot is better than a Taco Bell drive-thru with a queue of idling cars. Or, if you insist on “running for the border”, check out the urban stores that Taco Bell has built in other cities around the country and around the world (linked above). If Border Foods wanted to invest in Snelling Avenue, they could build a restaurant design that benefited the Midway instead of harming it.

Seemingly small decisions like drive-thru permits are important because St. Paul is currently trying to make a case for more transit investments, like the upcoming B Line, the Riverview modern streetcar, or the potential F Line aBRT. To justify good transit, we need walkable streets and better urban buildings. If St. Paul waters down land use with drive-thrus and other suburban development, it harms our ability to get regional and federal funding for critical investments.

The city needs to ask for more from businesses, developers, and especially corporate chain restaurants, demanding that they put community priorities before profit margins. Snelling and University is St. Paul’s primary transit hub outside of downtown, and should be more valuable than a strip mall parking lot in Farmington. We must ensure that our built environment reflects St. Paul’s values.

The CUP is being appealed by the Hamline-Midway coalition, which opposed it. If you care about this issue, please email Councilmember Mitra Jalali (ward4@ci.stpaul.mn.us) and Josh Williams (josh.williams@ci.stpaul.mn.us) in the Planning and Economic Development Department and share your thoughts. We can ask for more from developers and businesses at this critical spot. Snelling Avenue and the Hamline-Midway neighborhood deserve better.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.