Driving Miss Lazy

In praise of drive-through

Pull up to a Wendy’s drive-through window, and you can get a Baconator and a side of fries in 131 seconds. But if you try ordering an upright bagless vacuum cleaner, you can wait forever and Wendy’s won’t be able to accommodate you—and neither can McDonald’s, KFC, Sonic, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, or any other fast food chain in the land. Is there any good reason why we have dozens of places to procure deep-fried animal parts without exiting the soothing cocoons of our automobiles but must battle for parking spots and bushwhack our way through maze-like department stores whenever we need a new pair of crew socks?

Sears has introduced a new concept store in Joliet, Illinois, that finally addresses this weird imbalance of modern life. Called Mygofer, it is the world’s first drive-through department store.

Over the years, the drive-through universe has grown to include banks, pharmacies, coffee shops, wedding chapels, liquor stores, and dry cleaners. In New Alexandria, Pennsylvania, a strip club called Climax offers patrons a drive-through option, charging $10 a minute for a peek at its dancers. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, state Rep. Kevin Murphy (D-Scranton) maintains a drive-through window at his office to meet with constituents. (There’s no nudity involved, but at least it’s free.)

Meanwhile, if you want to buy a new toaster, you either have to get out of your car or pay a hefty shipping fee, only to have the UPS man knock on your door while you’re taking a nap. But if minimum-wage workers can assemble extremely complicated cheeseburgers while we idle in the drive-through lane, shouldn’t they be able to pluck an appliance off a shelf just as easily? The Mygofer test store is exploring this proposition in a former Kmart that now functions mostly as a warehouse. You order online, get in your car, drive over, and collect your loot.

In an age where convenience is king and productivity often trumps leisure as our greatest source of pleasure, drive-through commerce is an extremely timely expression of consumer desire. It’s especially appealing to disabled people who’d prefer not to get out of their cars, parents who have to manage sizable broods while shopping, and criminals who don’t like to dilly-dally. And for retailers and service providers, it’s even better. They don’t need as much space. They don’t have to deal with slobs who think that buying a cup of coffee gives them the right to pee all over the restroom floor. The drive-through approach makes one of the most unpredictable and annoying components of commerce—the customer—more manageable. It moves him through an assembly line of consumption, limiting his options and choreographing his behavior.

Shopping is transformed from an arbitrary pastime into a rationalized process with clear steps to follow: Order. Wait. Pay. Leave. Additional customers who enter the assembly line become the de facto managers of those ahead of them, their presence pressuring stragglers to keep moving forward in efficient fashion. Labor costs drop and profit margins rise. In the utopian scenario, consumers speed from shop to shop to shop, slowing for fuel breaks at Burger King and wallet refills at drive-through ATMs but never actually coming to a standstill until the cargo capacities of their cars are reached. Hey, maybe it’s time to start thinking about getting a Hummer!

Not everyone shares this dream. In 2000 Wendy’s led the industry in speediness, taking an average of only 150.3 seconds to serve customers at its drive-through window. By 2008 it had reduced its average serving time to 131 seconds. But that’s still 131 seconds during which drivers are idling wastefully. According to Sierra Club estimates, people waiting at fast food restaurants burn about 50 million gallons of gasoline a year. At the U.S. national average of $2.67 per gallon (as of October 26, 2009), that’s $133.5 million, or 27,300,613 Baconators, which, at 830 calories per Baconator, could feed exactly 35,273 100-pound supermodels every day for a year.

Actually, in the big scheme of things, 50 million gallons of gas isn’t all that much. In fact, it’s less than 0.03 percent of the 140 billion gallons of gas we use each year. And there are drive-through advocates who claim drive-throughs are, relatively speaking, the environmentally correct way to go. In 2008, for example, the Canadian coffee and donut chain Tim Hortons commissioned an engineering consulting firm called RWDI to compare the environmental impact of its drive-through outlets to that of its outlets without drive-throughs. Based on traffic surveys conducted at four stores during peak hours, RWDI concluded that the outlets without drive-throughs produced 40 percent to 70 percent more smog pollutants and carbon monoxide and 10 percent to 30 percent more greenhouse gases than the ones that had them. The difference was due to idling that occurs in the parking lot as drivers hunt and wait for spaces, the extra distance traveled during this process, and the extra engine start-up after customers complete their transactions and return to their vehicles.

Granted, a single study of four stores, commissioned by a company with a huge incentive to promote the benefits of drive-throughs, is hardly going to stand as the last word on the subject. For many, the drive-through—and especially the fast-food drive-through—is the most potent symbol of the unhealthy, car-centric culture that’s making us fat and sick, poisoning the planet, and locking us into an alienating, stressed-out consumerist lifestyle that, for all its abundance and variety, doesn’t deliver true satisfaction and is ultimately unsustainable. Fifty years from now, anti-drive-through advocates exclaim, it won’t matter how fast Wendy’s can serve you an Original Chocolate Frosty. We’re still going to be drowning in sizzling seas made from melted icebergs. All across Canada and the U.S., there are efforts to prohibit drive-throughs, just as there have been for at least the last two decades.

But even as city councils contemplate bans, drive-throughs proliferate. In Frankenmuth, Michigan, there is even a drive-through farmer’s market. It takes place in a McDonald’s parking lot, so if customers want to augment their Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets with freshly harvested zucchini or leeks, they can. Health care providers now regularly offer drive-through flu shots and other medical services. And of course there’s Mygofer, which, if it catches on, will pretty much allow you to purchase anything you can fit through your car window without ever turning off your ignition. The drive-through lane may yet be in its infancy.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco. This column first appeared at Reason.com.





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