Philip McLeod: The idling battle over city’s drive-thrus

Posted By Philip McLeod

Posted 9 hours ago

Two months ago a report prepared by a pair of City of London officials made this point: “If you balance both air quality and climate change concerns and give them equal importance, a drive-thru queue of longer than one minute would start to have negative impacts on the environment as a whole.”

Last month, in a presentation to a city council committee, officials of the Tim Hortons restaurant chain argued: “Over the past year those who have claimed drive-thrus as a detriment to the environment have failed to present any evidence to support their claims. They have provided commentary regarding climate change and general vehicle use, but no evidence whatsoever related to drive-thrus.”

What do these conflicting claims have to do with the argument – to be made again at a public meeting this coming Tuesday, July 15 – that there should be restrictions on where future drive-thru services should be located in London?

Nothing – and everything.

Tuesday’s meeting, the resumption of a gathering originally slated for June 17 that over-flowed the cramped public facilities of the City Hall council chambers, is expected to draw a big crowd.

By some it’s being billed as a David vs. Goliath battle, with the role of the giant being played by the more than 150 drive-thru operations in the city, especially the many Tim Hortons coffee and doughnut locations, and their legions. At a city council meeting in June, more than 40,000 signatures on petitions and post cards gathered by Tim Hortons protesting a proposed ban on drive-thrus were tabled.

The role of David may be more modest, but it has growing support too from a coalition of environmentalists, nationalists and socialists who favour banning all drive-thrus.

And so the battle begins.

So, what is Tuesday’s meeting about?

Good question. It is very decidedly not about banning drive-thrus, either in the present or the future.


Officially, it’s a meeting of city council’s planning committee to hear public comment on several proposed amendments to London’s official plan which would set some limits on where future drive-thru facilities – whether restaurants, financial institutions, beer stores, groceries stores or wedding chapels, to list some of the current offerings – can be located.

For example, they wouldn’t be allowed in residential neighbourhoods. They wouldn’t be allowed in ‘pedestrian-oriented downtown and business district commercial designations’.

In areas of the city where they are allowed, there would be new rules governing how far back from the street they would be and how many vehicles they could stack – that is, how long a queue they must accommodate on private property. There would also be some design standards.

But banning drive-thrus? No, that’s is not on the agenda.

“The primary reason for the growth of these facilities is their convenience to the travelling public by saving time and allowing the customer to stay in their vehicle,” says a background report from the city’s planning department prepared in advance of Tuesday’s meeting. “They also provide a level of safety at night and are easier for the physically challenged to use because customers can stay in their cars.”

Well, if it’s not about banning them, why the big fuss?

Another good question. The short answer is because, in a way, it actually is about ultimately banning them.

The fight here is over the ‘green house gas’ emissions and other dangerous pollutants from the internal combustion engines that drive our cars and trucks. Going through drive-thrus, motorists are forced to wait in line – and sit in idling cars, vans, SUVs and trucks.

Says the report by two city officials: “Idling may not be the largest component of automobile-related emissions. However, the decision to leave an automobile’s engine running is a voluntary one, and one that usually serves no useful purpose except to provide comfort and convenience.”

That report says that if every driver in London reduced their amount of idling by 20 per cent per year – or about one minute a day – “1,548,000 litres of fuel, a non-renewable resource, would be saved; 3,760 tonnes of green house gas would not be produced, the same benefit it would take 22,580 trees to duplicate.”

People on this side of the argument want those Londoners frantic for their morning coffee fix to pull up to the restaurant, turn off their vehicle, walk inside and pick it up.

Tim Hortons earlier this year financed what appears to be the first major study on drive-thru idling by RWDI Air Inc., consulting engineers and scientists from Guelph. One of their findings revolves around whether a vehicle idling in a drive-thru queue for five or six minutes pollutes more or less than a vehicle restarted after the five or six minutes it takes for the driver to get his or her coffee inside.

Based on the RWDI information, the emissions from a vehicle starting up after five minutes are equivalent to 2:43 minutes of idling for nitrogent oxides, 1:17 minutes of idling for hydrocarbons and 10 seconds of idling for carbon dioxide.

So if your anticipated wait time is around two minutes or less, you in fact may be causing less pollution if you take the drive-thru lane, especially at Timmy’s which has perfected service flows to satisfy its customers during peak periods within 20 – 25 seconds.

After examining the RWDI information, the city officials had this comment: “A drive-thru queue of five to six vehicles at a typical Tim Hortons should be processed in around two minutes, which would represent a ‘neutral’ air quality impact scenario compared to parking and walking in for service. Once the drive-thru queue is longer than six vehicles, it would start to have a negative impact on air quality. For other quick-service restaurants which longer customer service delivery time, the optimum drive-thru queue lengths would be shorter.”

But the city report makes one further observation: “For many people, climate change is just as important an issue as local air quality. Given that start up emissions only produce green house gas emissions (carbon dioxide) equvalent to 10 seconds worth of engine idling, the use of a drive-thru will, in most cases, have a greater climate change impact than parking and walking in.”

Okay, what happens next?

Once all the emotion on both sides of this question gets wrung out, much of it next Tuesday, city council will probably pass the amendments to its official plan. Drive-thrus will continue to be built, but under the new rules – and probably not in some spots where Tim Hortons and other companies have already purchased land.

Some time soon, there will be another attempt to deal with idling, probably by reducing the amount of time you are allowed to idle your vehicle while waiting for it to warm up, waiting for a train to pass, waiting for your child at school, waiting for your turn at the coffee window.

The current idling bylaw, and more onerous restrictions being contemplated, however do not deal with the major reason motorists in London idle: Waiting for red traffic lights to turn to green which can, in a 20 minute commute to work, add up to four or five minutes if you hit the lights wrong or need to make left turns.


¦ A public participation meeting to review changes to London’s official plan to regulate drive-thru facilities will be held Tuesday, July 15, 7 p.m., Centennial Hall. Free admission.


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