Drive-thru businesses are bad for the planet


January 18, 2008


Except for blabbing on cellphones while jumping lanes in heavy traffic, nothing Canadians do in their cars is more idiotic than idling their engines.

While inhaling exhaust fumes in lineups, they threaten their own health. They damage their engines, waste money by wasting fuel and, if they’re in the drive-thru lanes of fast-food joints, deprive themselves even of the tiny exercise they’d get by walking from a parking spot to get the junk food they shouldn’t be eating anyway.

As they blithely drive away, munching greasy burgers and jelly doughnuts and slurping pop, it doesn’t occur to them, the dumb slobs, that while lined up behind a dozen other automobiles — all of them spewing carbon dioxide and going nowhere — they contribute to the global warming that’s horrifying climate scientists all around the world.

It does cars no good at all to let them idle for several minutes on cold winter mornings, but millions of Canadians do it anyway. They idle cars at drive-thru coffee shops, banks, car washes and, recently, liquor stores. With engines running, they wait to fill up their gas tanks and pass highway repair crews, and for friends to join them on shopping trips, children to get out of school, and trains to pass at railway crossings,

Yet Natural Resources Canada says an idling car releases twice as much exhaust as a moving one. Ten seconds of idling uses more fuel than restarting the engine, and if all the drivers in Canada avoided idling for just five minutes per day they’d prevent 1.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from infecting the atmosphere, the federal ministry says.

“At some popular fast-food restaurants across the country,” The Canadian Press recently reported, “lineups are so long they stretch out of parking lots and spill onto public streets, and politicians are eyeing the emissions spewed by all the idling cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles.”

Heaven only knows how this affects the health of those who, for years, live, work and breathe near the exhaust fumes, but cities from Victoria to St. John’s now recognize they should put some controls on the spread of drive-thru businesses. Some are considering restricting the hours of operation for drive-thrus, and others have banned new ones in residential neighbourhoods.

Several Nova Scotian communities have anti-idling policies that promote such measures as posting signs at schools to urge parents not to idle their engines while waiting for their children, and in King’s County, councillor Wayne Atwater has pushed for a moratorium on all future drive-thrus.

For everybody except the pregnant, elderly and disabled, he’d also like to see the current drive-thru services eliminated.

“These people who are able-bodied men and women,” he said, “I certainly don’t see any reason why they can’t get out of their vehicles.”

Nor do I. Atwater hasn’t persuaded his fellow councillors to go along with him, but he’s right. Before anyone had ever barked into one of those drive-thru mikes to get fat-loaded whoppers and supersize orders of french fries, the world was no unhappier than it is now.

The London, Ont., chapter of the Council of Canadians has launched an online petition that declares, “Drive-thrus are an incredible detriment to our environment and are a luxury item we can live without.” It asks us to sign our names below this: “I demand that all levels of government impose an immediate moratorium on all new commercial drive-thru operations and establish a timetable to phase out all existing drive-thru operations through zoning or other bylaws.”

I signed. So did one Susan Meehan, who explained why.

“I am shocked and infuriated daily as I notice more and more cars lined up at Tim Hortons drive-thrus,” she said “It is mind-blowing that, given the crisis we are in environmentally and with awareness of it at an all-time high, people continue to feel they have a right to sit there, one person per vehicle, lined up 20 SUVs deep, blocking traffic and polluting our air. What is going on? Where is the government? Come on Canada, we can do better than this.”

About drive-thrus, another petitioner, Joe Wilson, said, “They are ridiculous. How lazy do we have to get! Let’s get real and stop the pollution, the congestion and the lard-butts.”

To those who insist governments will never have the guts to outlaw drive-thrus, I reply, “Maybe you’re right, but I’m old enough to remember those who insisted governments would never have the guts to outlaw smoking in public places.”

Harry Bruce is a member of the Winnipeg-based Issues Network.


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