Vancouver’s drive-throughs leave car captives wanting more

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      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.




      Jan 10, 2012 at 7:08pm

      If you want to drive everywhere you go, go and live in the suburbs.

      The roads are wider, the parking lots bigger, the housing cheaper and the drive throughs more plentiful.

      The city is becoming more and more dense, space is at a premium and cars are becoming less and less practical.

      We will always need them of course for certain tasks and occupations (parenthood often included), and we will never do away with them completely, but I agree it's important for us to prioritize more practical and efficient transportation methods in our jam packed city.

      Justin Berger

      Jan 10, 2012 at 7:10pm

      Since when did the Straight start running pieces from the Onion?


      Jan 10, 2012 at 7:32pm

      No offense to her, but perhaps she could just discipline her kids enough so that they behave in public. I come from a family of four kids and we were always well-behaved, especially when we were treated to a meal out. Kids have too much of a sense of entitlement these days. A meal out is a treat for children and if treated as such, the according behaviour will follow. And if not, well there are larger issues at stake for the family than a monotonous food selection.


      Jan 10, 2012 at 10:34pm

      We've taken our kids to restaurants since they were born. They've eaten everywhere from Moderne Burger and Save-On Meats to Vij's and Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar. (We took them to Blue Water when the oldest was six and the youngest was 11 months.) Teach your kids how to carry themselves in public rather than demanding that the industry (and city planners) go out of their way to accommodate you.

      You're not "disabled" because you have kids. You're a parent. Get used to it.


      Jan 11, 2012 at 1:32am

      Stop driving, problem solved.


      Jan 11, 2012 at 7:38am

      Has this woman never heard of a lunchbox?

      Poor me! I have to get a burger in a drive-through because a salad is too expensive! It's so rough living in the first world.

      “Drive-throughs are one of the few services that really accommodate the speed and the pressures of parenting a modern family.”

      I despair for the "modern family".

      There is no such thing as a shortage of drive-throughs. That's like saying there is a shortage of vomit scraped off the pavement being served to anyone who will eat it.


      Jan 11, 2012 at 9:43am

      Interesting perspective on the day-to-day challenge of parenting young children. As a single mother of now-grown children, I can appreciate the struggle of moving three little ones in and out of a restaurant; especially a crowded quick shop.
      Would previous posters be happy to sit in the diner booth next to a family of muddy soccer kids?
      Can't imagine trying to get four people through town on transit on multiple trips per day. Sometimes using a car is not the worst option.
      re:MarkBowen... isn't North Vancouver the suburbs?

      cranky mom

      Jan 11, 2012 at 9:50am

      Morty and JohnL1, I have a funny feeling that neither one of you have done as much driving, feeding, and planning as this Mom. Dad's do less. Less activities, less cooking, less grocery shopping, and less school volunteering. Are you even a parent?

      Most men cannot handle the amount of work most Mom's I know do, they think they do a lot, but the reality is they don't.

      Having children is a choice, having 3 children is a larger choice. We live in different times now. Families spent much more time together and less time playing outside in the park with their friends. (Parent supervision at all times.)

      It is ignorant to compare you and your family from 20 or 30 years ago to the society we live in now. Not everyone has a large family to support them.

      As my good friend says, if I see a mom and kids having a tough time in public, I know that it did not just happen. There was significant lead up time. I surely hope you are not the person giving me the scowl when my toddler has a meltdown.

      Note to T-bag, u r ignorant too.

      Signed, burned out working mom who does drive thru's and who's children will be paying for your old age pension and health care.


      Jan 11, 2012 at 11:08am

      I don't care about your spawn. You chose to have children - quit expecting everything to cater to every one of your particular kid-centric needs. It never ends. How about you try and navigate your way through adult civilization and put up with a few minor inconveniences like the rest of us - one of them being everything kid-inclusive and kid-friendly and nerfy and child-proofed.

      You aren't a political movement or an oppressed underclass - so shut up already.


      Jan 11, 2012 at 11:25am

      And why should we put parents at the top of the list of priorities? What makes you better or more important than everyone else exactly? Have you looked around at the state of the world lately?

      And drive-throughs will soon be seen as a strange relic of a by-gone era, so start adapting.