Can there be too many drive-thrus? One Colorado city is considering whether to impose a limit

Can there be too many drive-thrus? One Colorado city is considering whether to impose a limit

The venerable American ritual of palming a burger while gripping the steering wheel, as grease and ketchup drip onto shirt and lap, could soon face resistance as thick as honey mustard sauce in Golden.

Last week, city leaders launched a months-long effort to explore whether this city of 20,000 should limit — or even outlaw — new drive-thru operations in the name of cleaner air and better mobility for pedestrians and cyclists.

“Drive-thrus can have such impacts not just on sustainability aspirations but on the safety of people and drivers,” said Golden Councilman Casey Brown, who brought the issue up at the council meeting Tuesday. “And they can be difficult to manage once they’re there.”

The city found that out the hard way a couple of years back during the pandemic when the drive-thru at a Starbucks on South Golden Road was overwhelmed after government-ordered restaurant closures. Long lines of cars spilled onto the road, gumming up the nearby traffic circle. It took nearly six months to resolve the issue.

Councilman Rob Reed, who with Brown brought the idea forward for consideration, said the detractions of drive-thrus are evident. They require huge amounts of asphalt, which exacerbates the urban heat island effect common to many paved-over areas. More notably, there’s the impact on air quality, with motorists spewing emissions as they inch forward for that crispy chicken sandwich, bank withdrawal or venti latte.

“On days when we have ozone alerts, idling cars are a problem,” Reed said.

And with Golden crafting plans to redevelop a stretch of West Colfax Avenue near C-470, a less auto-oriented approach to land-use policy could yield a much different feel for the western terminus of a 26.5-mile street often referred to as America’s longest commercial strip.

“I think there is that vision that as we develop new areas, we want to make it more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists,” Reed said.

The city will take up the future of drive-thrus as part of its zoning code revisions process, which is already underway. Reed said he doesn’t expect Golden to make any decisions on the matter until next spring, at the earliest.

Golden wouldn’t be the first community in the nation to frown on drive-thrus. Four years ago, Minneapolis passed an ordinance banning any new drive-thru facilities in the city, citing air pollution, additional curb cuts that lead to “more conflict points between vehicles and pedestrians,” as well as litter, noise and light impacts.

In Long Beach, Calif., city leaders imposed a six-month moratorium on new drive-thrus around the same time Minneapolis took its action. Closer to home, Salt Lake City is considering a halt to any new drive-thru windows in its burgeoning Sugar House Business District, with a vote from city council expected early next month.

David Dixon, vice president with engineering and architecture consultancy Stantec, said cities are re-evaluating street design as educated “knowledge workers” take a more commanding role in the economy. These young professionals, Dixon said, have an “overwhelming preference” for “mixed-use, walkable places” that recall America’s erstwhile Main Street.

“Creating lively, amenitized streets is central to unlocking significant new housing demand in these downtowns and districts,” he said. “The drive-thru occupies a site that otherwise would be contributing to the larger Main Street’s success. Its customers rarely patronize nearby businesses. It generates traffic that competes with the traffic whose destination is the collective Main Street and its businesses. Its character denies the very walkability that enhances the appeal of the larger Main Street.”

Concerns about drive-thrus are cropping up in Denver as well, as the city mulls updates for East Colfax Avenue between Broadway and Yosemite Street, where a future bus rapid transit line is expected to shift emphasis on transit use and walkability in the corridor. In a presentation the city posted last month, it hailed a prohibition on “vehicle-oriented drive-thru development” is one potential way to deemphasize travel by car.

Councilman Chris Hinds said the goal behind the changes is “to celebrate that pedestrian experience by highlighting people over stuff.”

“In the 1950s, the American Friday night was literally to get in your car and cruise the strip,” he said. “While that was great for then, we need to redouble our efforts with Vision Zero to ensure we don’t lose more pedestrians and cyclists in car crashes.”

“Discouraging car- (and stuff-) centric designs like drive-thrus and self-storage facilities” is one way Denver can move past the status quo in road design, Hinds said.

But the battle against drive-thrus, and the hyper convenience they offer, will not be easy. According to a 2021 report from Quantum Real Estate Advisors, there are more than 200,000 drive-thru operations in the United States, with Americans pulling up to a service window about 6 billion times a year.

Those habits were only cemented in place by the coronavirus pandemic, during which dining rooms were shut down by public health order and the drive-thru lane became the safest — and sometimes only — way to pick up a meal.

Customers move through the drive-thru lane at Starbucks Coffee in Golden on Friday, August 25, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post) 

Paul Haseman, a Golden council member, wondered at last week’s meeting if the city was putting its focus in the right place. The city, he noted, hadn’t received an application for a new drive-thru lane since Sonic put one in four years ago. And the chaos at the Starbucks pickup window has long since dissipated.

There is no Chick-fil-A or In-N-Out restaurant in Golden, two fast-food chains famous for long, snaking lines of cars filled with fanatical customers looking for a protein boost. When the state’s first In-N-Out restaurant opened in Aurora in late 2020, the wait to get to the drive-thru window of the California-based burger joint stretched to a staggering 14 hours.

“Is this an issue for us?” Haseman asked his colleagues on council. “I don’t feel we should be going after new adventures when we have plenty on our plate.”

That’s why the city will be discussing the issue openly over the next few months, Reed said, to gauge where the public is on the subject.

“We’re not trying to make a political statement that we’re against fast food or we’re anti-growth,” he said. “We’re a long way from making a decision that drive-thrus are not allowed.”