Proposed Drive-Thru Ban in Comox, BC: Cognitive Dissonance and the LEED-certified A&W

Vanessa June 29, 2009 Land Use, Transportation

Tags: cars, Climate Change, Comox, cycling, pedestrian, public health, sustainability, Transportation

Have you ever wished that your least favourite form of development could be simply banished? In the Vancouver Island town of Comox (pop. 12,000), the town council is considering just that.

Drive-thru A&W in the City of Coutenay, in the Comox Valley. Thanks to Brian Chow for the Creative Commons picture.

A current resolution, meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development, would amend Comox’s Zoning Bylaw to prohibit drive-thru services like restaurants and banks throughout the town. Existing uses would remain but no future drive-thrus could be developed.

Howls of protest and approval arose at once, represented by rival websites. In April, the town council delayed a vote because of a councillor’s possible conflict of interest: Councillor Patti Fletcher, who supports the ban, is the co-owner of a bicycle shop. (The town’s lawyer has since advised that Ms. Fletcher can consider the issue impartially; it seems that a ban on future drive-thrus would not sufficiently imperil local car culture to result in mass purchasing of bikes.)

Delivered amid this tempest, an initial planning report advised the council that “drive thrus conflict with areas where a pedestrian orientation is desired or exists.” Nonetheless, the authors supported only a partial ban, with future drive-thrus allowed in certain locations.

One reason for the planners’ conservative position is fractious municipal jurisdictions, an issue that has plagued town planning initiatives far and wide. The town of Comox is contiguous with the neighbouring city of Courtenay. Unless accompanied by similar legislation there, a ban in Comox would risk directing new investment to its neighbour. Furthermore, car-dependent residents of Comox might actually adjust their travel patterns to visit unincorporated areas along the highway to purchase hamburgers and doughnuts directly from their vehicles. This, the planners argued, could actually increase local greenhouse gas emissions.

A second planning report, submitted last week but apparently not available online, stops short of recommending a full ban but proposes to “ensure any environmental impacts [of drive-thrus] are mitigated” by requiring that all future drive-thrus be LEED certified. This recommendation, presumably meant to placate supporters of a full ban who cite environmental concerns, represents a headache-inducing misunderstanding of the environmental impacts of automobile-oriented development.

Adherence to green building standards decreases the impact of a building’s construction, maintenance and operations. However, if the fundamental use of that purpose-built structure encourages automobile dependence, with attendant consequences for land use and public health, the building’s environmental impacts have not been mitigated.

Auto-oriented services in Courtenay. Thanks to Brian Chow for the Creative Commons photo.

A drive-thru, with its queue of idling cars, is one of the most obnoxiously car-oriented forms of development. However, visitors to the Comox valley now discover a rich menu of drive-thru and eat-in fast-food restaurants alike forming islands in seas of asphalt. Whatever the town council’s decision on the drive-thru ban, it may be that the greatest achievement here is local decision-makers’ recognition of the problems of automobile-oriented development.

Stay tuned for the Comox town council’s decision about the proposed drive-thru ban, coming in mid-July!

“Climate policy is characterized by the habituation of low expectations and a culture of failure. There is an urgent need to understand global warming and the tipping points for dangerous impacts that we have already crossed as a sustainability emergency that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise. We are now in a race between climate tipping points and political tipping points.”
David Spratt, Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red, Australia, Published July, 2008


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