The scientific case for abolishing fast food drive-thru has nothing to do with obesity
Drive-in – services that allow people to order and collect food and drink without having to leave their car – are designed with convenience in mind. Whether it’s blisteringly hot, uncomfortable cold, or we’re just in a hurry, drive-thru has become very appealing in an age characterized by a desire to immediacy.
In the UK, where there are approximately 2,000 passes at the wheelit is not uncommon to see queues of vehicles meandering with drivers waiting their turn to pass, pay and collect their orders.
In fact, drive-thru is on an upward trajectory in the UK. 41 percent increase the number of drive-ins between 2015 and 2020, and 12% of sales in fast food restaurants and coffee chains were made through their drive-thru sites in the year to March 2021: 50% more than pre-Covid figures.
This service has become essential for many. Drive-thru services offer benefits to people with limited mobility as well as those with very busy schedules or people who argue with young children. In the United States, even some banks and pharmacies offer drive-thru options. And by helping customers avoid eating indoors, drive-thrus may also have helped limit the spread of Covid-19. But drive-ins come at a cost.
First, drive-thrus require excessive idling, which is banned on public roads in the UK, but regularly and casually in queues at the wheel. In addition to increasing emissions, waste fuel and damaging enginestailpipe emissions associated with idling create local air pollution with serious environmental and health consequences.
Poor air quality is already a widespread problem in the UK, where more than two-thirds of local authorities infringe air quality objectives. Even if we were to achieve these goals, the Royal College of Physicians warned that only a fraction of incidences of air quality-related illnesses – including lung cancer, asthma attacks and overall reduced life expectancy – would be avoided. Currently, air pollution causes 40,000 dead per year in the UK, with annual costs to the NHS of over £20 billion ($27.2 billion).
In light of the current situation transition towards electric vehicles, environmental concerns related to idling will decrease. The UK project to phase out sales of internal combustion engines will also reduce tailpipe emissions as we head towards 2050.
Yet even so, emissions from brake wear and tire wear are respectively responsible for 16 to 55 percent and five to 30 percent non-tailpipe emissions in UK cities. This means that air pollution and its health effects will not be completely solved by switching to electric cars.
Drive-through: the end result
Cities around the world have started cracking down on drive-thrus, despite renewed investment following the pandemic.
Some regions of Canada and the United States have already banned or restricted new drive-ins, while cities like Glasgow are beginning to consider following suit. As the UK attempts to reduce the number of car owners and use, drive-ins will also inevitably be discouraged.
Curbing the expansion of drive-thru will not seriously affect UK restaurant revenues: especially given their relatively small market share considering that 70 percent of fast food sales in the United States are made through drive-thru. However, the negative implications of the “drive-thru culture” have deeper roots.
Car-centric transport planning has dominated urban development in the UK since the World War II. It has increased congestion and contributed to public health issues such as the effects of poor air quality and increasing incidence of obesity by cutting the share of journeys via more environmentally friendly options such as public transport, cyclingand while walking.
Urban development that prioritises cars is also incompatible with the UK government’s aims to improve well-being, food systemsand public health. Instead, build cities with wider sidewalks, separate bike lanes, and widespread public transport – where we can reduce our addiction about cars and fast food – represents the healthy urban future that experts suggest that we should try to create.
And for those with mobility or childcare issues, the growth of smartphone apps enabling delivery from restaurant to car outside the drive-thru makes it easy and safe for people to pick up food without having to wait in line. Food delivery apps whose cyclists use bikes can also help reduce car trips while maintaining convenience.
As a society, we need to reflect on the profoundly negative effects of living in a society that has become so time pressed that we cannot afford to get out of our cars to get food, let alone to Eat it.
Fundamentally, drive-ins are symptomatic of a way of life we need to move away from – for the good of our planet. Limiting them to the UK would be a sign of progress not only for the environment but also for our society.