By Dom Nozzi
May 5, 1998
I am torn about allowing drive-throughs at businesses in a neighborhood intended to be walkable (such as a “traditional neighborhood development,” or “TND”). I’ve considered drive-throughs to be the Great Satan for a number of years, and have wanted to do what I can to prohibit them in pedestrian-oriented areas.
In the past, such an effort was clearly admirable, in my opinion, since all we would lose by stopping them are stand-alone banks or fast food restaurants. We could live without those, I believe.
But now, as we edge toward quality urbanism in certain American cities, we must decide if we are willing to accept them in exchange for something wonderful — something that might allow us to reach the much-sought-after critical mass of urbanism.
I have reached the point where I can be comfortable with a drive-through if, on balance, it is a net positive for pedestrians and urbanism. As a result, I am willing to accept a drive- through at a newly proposed compact, walkable TND neighborhood — especially if accepting the drive-through is the only way to get such fabulous projects built. And I’ve become convinced that this is true for many proposed TNDs in America.
I agree that we must crawl before we walk. But I think we need to be careful for a couple of reasons:
- We could get black hat developers who have no interest in quality neighborhoods or quality urbanism proposing to install a drive-through not because it is necessary for making the project feasible, but because they want to dramatically increase their profits at the expense of our quality of life. They might see that the community likes New Urbanism and give us some token “window dressing” urbanism like some picket fences or front porches, and fool us into thinking this wonderful New Urbanism will compensate for the ills of the drive-through. Then we find out later that it was a bait and switch, and what we end up with is pseudo New Urbanism.
So I guess we would need to protect ourselves from this is an informed staff, informed elected officials, and good New Urbanist ordinances to protect us from this potential negative.
- I think we need to be careful that we don’t end up with too much suburbanization. I’m not as concerned about the outlying single-family residential subdivisions in American cities because I think a lot of it is The Lost Land and is too far gone to be threatened with more suburbanization. But at some point, our downtown might reach the point of no return — a point where no one would ever want to live downtown, shop downtown, work downtown, or recreate downtown because it has become an auto slum. I think we nearly reached that point of no return in many American cities in the later decades of the 20th Century, and we are starting to turn it around. I’d hate for us to lose the momentum of getting more residential and pedestrian-oriented commercial downtown by going too far with parking or drive-throughs downtown.
But again, I agree with you that we must be pragmatic and guard against being purists who oppose anything that is not perfect New Urbanism. I’m very excited about proposed new TNDs in American cities and believe it will be an important turning point for urbanism in such cities.
It has been noted by urbanists such as Andres Duany that it is best to designate a select number of streets that will be designated for high-quality urban design (called “A” streets), and allow suburban design on less important streets (called “B” streets). Striving for high-quality urban design on all streets leads to mediocrity on all streets.
On the issue of only allowing drive-throughs on “B” streets, I like the idea in theory, but wonder how difficult it would implement. Does the community have the political will to decide which are the “A” and “B” streets? And wouldn’t it be a moving target? Would we want to designate all of them up front, or do it in an ad hoc way as the need arose?
In the case of a local government TND ordinance, it is probably wise to craft that ordinance so that instead of a drive-through prohibition, the ordinance just requires them to only be allowed if not on an “A” street.
I’d also like to consider other conditions if a city is going to allow drive-throughs in a walkable location. I do not believe that a city can design a stand-alone establishment in such a way that the drive-through is benign. For example, I do not think it is just a matter of hiding the drive-through from view or providing more landscaping, or providing pedestrian street lights. None of that would give us a net positive — and one essential goal for me is to at least avoid making things worse. I’d want us to say something like “Drive-throughs are allowed if the following conditions are met:
- It is not on an “A” street; and
- It has no more than one drive-through lane.
And at least one of the following:
- It is part of a mixed use (including residential) project; or 2. It is part of a project that conforms to the city TND ordinance.”
Let us continue the important quest to reach a critical mass in creating urbanism in American cities.