Vancouver’s drive-throughs leave car captives wanting more
During the week, Jennifer Dickson drives her kids—three boys under five—around North Vancouver, circulating between preschool drop-offs, groceries, and other chores. And yeah, at least once a week, they eat lunch at a drive-through restaurant. The kids invariably choose chicken nuggets; she (in spite of her dedication to a personal trainer) eats a burger and fries. She’d prefer more flavour and less fat from these meals—not to mention the ability to support independent restaurants. But what can she do?
The boys, aged four, two, and four months, won’t sit still for a restaurant meal. Even entering a fast-food restaurant requires unbelting three kids, herding them through a parking lot, forcing good behaviour while standing in line, and then negotiating a stroller and two hungry tots through chaos while balancing a tray loaded with drinks and food. To Dickson, it’s not just impossible—it’s political.
“With kids, I am totally disabled in society,” the former legal secretary told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from her home. “Drive-throughs are one of the few services that really accommodate the speed and the pressures of parenting a modern family.”
Locally, the limited drive-through market is owned by big chains: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, and Triple O’s. While pedestrians reap the benefits of the food truck initiative—which introduced independently owned, healthy, and multicultural fare to city streets—those who are stuck in their cars are also likely to be stuck with burgers, fast food-style salads, and doughnuts. That is, until McSushi, McBanh Mi, and McDosa hit town. Or, until residents vote in governments that support more drive-throughs.
Vancouver, Burnaby, and North Vancouver city planners are notoriously anti-window, according to Ian Tostenson, the president of the B.C. Restaurant & Foodservices Association—much more so than in the rest of the province. In 2008, the City of North Vancouver debated a bylaw that would have banned drive-throughs on the basis of idling cars and greenhouse gases. (It was defeated—but the city still has just one such restaurant: an A & W.) In addition, Vancouver planners haven’t approved a new drive-through for at least five years, according to the City of Vancouver’s manager of communications, Barb Floden. (The city doesn’t keep track of how many businesses have applied for one, she explained.)
“It’s ridiculous,” Tostenson raved on the phone from his office. “These are people who have over-green interests gone wild. Drive-throughs serve parents with young children, seniors, other people with mobility issues. They’re a major convenience.…Governments shouldn’t curtail responsible commercial development, especially the way the economy is now.”
Like food trucks, Tostenson argued, relaxing the puritanical approach to drive-throughs could be an opportunity for smaller establishments to expand and get creative. While his own drive-through days are mostly over—visiting them used to be a treat for his two boys on their way home from soccer—encouraging new customers is just good business.
Vancouver’s director of transportation doesn’t think so. Jerry Dobrovolny explained that, in any development-permit decisions involving transportation, the city prioritizes the following in order from highest to lowest: pedestrians, cycling, transit, goods movement, and finally, cars. In the case of drive-throughs, a permit would usually require a car to cross a sidewalk—giving preference to the driver over the pedestrian. Thus, planners usually don’t approve them.
“We are proponents of healthier and local options for food,” Dobrovolny countered, citing the food truck program and the expansion of community gardens into roundabouts and boulevards. He pointed out that Vancouver’s pro-walking and cycling initiatives have garnered international kudos for livability.
Dobrovolny, who cycles to Vancouver city hall from New Westminster nearly every day, also pointed out that “the more you drive, the heavier you are.”
To Dickson, these arguments are insulting.
“Seriously? They should put parents at the top of their list of priorities,” she said. “For 20 years, I worked downtown, and commuted by transit or bike. But when I first had kids, my mornings started with a preschool drop-off, a daycare drop-off, and having to get to work late each day because my childcare didn’t start till 8:30. I couldn’t have done it on transit or a bike.
“So you ride your bike in from New West. What that tells me is you’re not looking after anyone but yourself. He [Dobrovolny] should walk a day in my shoes.”
Tostenson pointed out that the “quick service” restaurants with drive-through windows are working hard to deliver healthy alternatives—such as Wendy’s Nutritious Options menu (which includes a side Caesar salad with no dressing), and Burger King’s Tendergrill chicken sandwich.
Still, he said, he doesn’t choose those options at drive-throughs. On the rare occasions he visits one, he orders “the biggest, juiciest burger I can get my hands on” because the experience is a treat.
Similarly, frequent drive-through patron Dickson doesn’t order fast-food salads and other healthier fare, due to the cost. “Eight dollars for a salad? To me, that’s a sit-down restaurant price.”
Alas, the road to healthier, more flavourful, and independently owned drive-through fare seems very long indeed.