Letter to Planning Committee from Former Employee of Industry

Dear City Council Members (Planning Committee),

I am writing today as a concerned citizen in our community (Ward 1), to voice my support for the call to impose–at least in the short term–a moratorium on new “drive-thru” developments in the City of London.

It was not so long ago that a municipal debate raged across the front pages of the London Free Press and in broadcast media about how many “Adult Entertainment” establishments should be allowed to operate in London. Citizens did not want to see new establishments allowed to set-up shop near schools or residential neighbourhoods, and they were viewed as a particular enhancement to the prosperity of the London economy. Although a business lobby group tried to force council to capitulate to their wishes for more licenses for such establishments, although some members of council were attacked for “legislating morality” or for being “prudes”, ultimately council exercised its proper authority and kept a firm cap on the number of such establishments and implemented restrictions on where such businesses could operate.

The issue today is drive-thrus, but the comparison holds.  Citizens–quite correctly–don’t want to see their property devalued and their quality of life ruined by having a drive-thru operation put in abutting or near their property. They don’t want the noise, or car exhaust pouring into their yards and homes.

Nor are drive-thrus a particular benefit to the local economy. Having nearly 10 years experience in the restaurant industry, it is a fact that on average customer’s average cheques are higher “in-store” than in “drive-thru”. People spend more when they can see and smell the product then when they cannot, and customers who sit “in-store” also generate “add-on” sales through that second cup of coffee, or deciding to get a dessert etc. A smart business operation can generate more economic activity “in-store” than a drive-thru is capable of. In fact there are numerous small business restaurants without drive-thrus all across London that do perfectly fine business and contribute far more to the economic health as well as the community spirit of London than the foreign owned corporations spending significant amounts of money on a misinformation and fear campaign opposing any additional restrictions or a moratorium.

Like the “Adult Entertainment” issue, council is fully and reasonably within its authority to cap the number of drive-thru operations in the city, and for the good of our community should impose at least in the short term a moratorium on new drive-thrus.

The moratorium is necessary because it is quiet clear that the current by-laws and restrictions on where these operations are allowed are insufficient. There are numerous examples of these operations abutting residential property in London. I pass two such examples every day on my commute to work (by bicycle as often as possible–and I applaud the addition of bicycle lanes between Gore and Trafalgar on Clarke Rd.), the first being at Trafalgar and Clarke road where the Tim Horton’s drive-thru abuts a large housing complex and again at Dundas & Calgary where only a rickety wooden fence separates a drive-thru lane from a single family home.

The moratorium is also necessary because as our awareness of environmental impacts of human activity at a local level grows, it is becoming more and more apparent that automobile traffic contributes a significant amount to air quality and environmental degradation. The skyrocketing health costs of poor air quality alone are a staggering blow to the province of Ontario in terms of the healthcare budget. Sick days due to respiratory problems are on the rise, while the London area continues to see record numbers of smog days (beginning earlier and running later into the calendar year) then ever before.  This is BAD for the economy, the environment, and the health of your constituents. I noted with interest that “Canadian Physicians for the Environment” is one of the organizations calling for a moratorium to be implemented.

More over, lacking a credible independent study into the impact of drive-thru operations on our environment, it is imperative that we consider the precautionary principle in decision making because we simply do not have enough data to make sound decisions based on “facts”.  You cannot, in good conscience, simply accept the selective manipulation of the industry commissioned RWDI study as unbiased findings.  As I have informed council members previously, my own experience in the fast food industry clearly demonstrated that the industry begins with skewed data in the first place because their method of tracking drive-thru times only begins when an order is placed. Further it is dependent on the honesty of employees to leave an order “on-screen” until it is delivered to the customer.  This frequently is not the case, as employees are encouraged–through various incentives and rewards–to lower drive-thru times and therefore many employees simply erase the order once it is fill and ready to hand out whether the vehicle has reached the window or not. Industry “findings” cannot be taken at face value.

Further, the fast-food industry’s over the top fear-mongering campaign to oppose any moratorium or restrictions on drive-thru locations has been so clearly designed to mislead and misinform the public that you should be cautious about accepting at face value any public support of the industry position. Public support for an issue based on false information–such as the industry is distributing through their propaganda–cannot be considered genuine support.  At the very least, the supposed 40,000 signatures on the petition the industry has presented to city hall should be cross referenced with the voters lists to ensure that the signatures are legitimate residents of London. Certainly senior levels of government require signatures to be verified on petitions to the parliament or provincial legislatures and it is reasonable to expect our municipal government also conduct due diligence on petitions it receives.

Finally, we must consider and return to the issue of our environment and energy supply.  Headline news stories have recently highlighted the increased costs to the City of London budget for fuel costs (and I have more than once witnessed a City of London vehicle idling in a long line-up at a Tim Hortons).  These same energy and fuel cost increases are being felt by individual citizens as well. The economy of our city has suffered as the downturn in the North American auto manufacturing sector has caused jobs to vanish. We appear to be at the beginning of a paradigm shift. Across our city there are numerous “grey fields”, practically or literally abandoned strip mall style retail developments. These are the product of short-sighted planning and thinking. An excellent example can be found at Highbury and Trafalgar on the northwest corner–but it is just one example.  With an increasingly apparent paradigm shift back toward more walkable, pedestrian and cyclist friendly communities, now is hardly the time to allow carte-blanche drive-thru development. If the paradigm shift occurs to the degree some predict–we may be creating a legacy of abandon drive-thru grey fields for our future. Even if a mass paradigm shift is not rapidly approaching, there is no doubt–the mountain of scientific evidence is indisputable–that our world is already in the midst of a large scale environmental change. The argument that the local impact of activity is insignificant on a large scale is simply not acceptable by any logical or even ethical standard. Think globally, act locally, is more than a slogan, it is a reality. You or I may not be able to change the activities of a government or even of an individual human being half way around the world (or even a few miles south of the border), but we can make a difference in our community. As elected officials you have a duty to act locally for the common good of our community.

Having cited my concerns and views on this issue, I would like to call on members of the planning committee to:

1) Refer to Council a recommendation that the City of London, in conjunction with other stakeholders (including labour organizations, local business owners, community organizations, and with citizen representation), produces an urgently needed ‘CO2 Emissions Strategy Report’ –providing direction and targets to curb emissions within the city of London. To emphasize the sense of urgency required to put a system such as proposed in place as well as show commitment to the process, a moratorium on expansion of the quantity of drive-thrus that exist in the city should be invoked until the report is functional and in use.

2) Commission an independent study of the impact of drive-thrus and idling on air quality and our local environment, or failing that to at the very least seeking independent expert review and opinion of the industry RWDI study to determine what is relevant, independently corroborated by other studies, and applicable for our community

3) Transfer jurisdiction of this issue to the  ETC, the committee to which it should logically be under the review and jurisdiction of.

Finally, I would call on members of the planning committee to recognize the extensive and arguably the most unbiased available work on this matter by your own city staff and endorse the reasonable recommendations made in their report to you.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Shawn Lewis

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