Will that be fumes with your burger?

Thursday, 27th August 2009


By KEVIN HARRISON – Kevin Harrison is a program officer with Clean Nova Scotia.

Thu. Aug 27 – 4:46 AM

The Chronicle Herald

Canadians rightly tend to be pretty patriotic about our culture and tradition. We are proud of all our achievements, from the invention of the telephone to the invention of hockey, both of which Nova Scotians are particularly proud to say hailed from Canada’s Ocean Playground.

We like to consider ourselves to be a selfless, giving culture that’s eager to help others.

It is true that Nova Scotians, and Canadians in general, have a lot to be proud of; but one aspect of our culture has become a bad habit that we can’t seem to shake. We are all guilty of participating in this habit from time to time; some of us even do it daily.

You know what I’m on about. A static-laced voice comes from a box and asks, “Can I take your order?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a large double-double and a bagel with cream cheese, please”

“Is that everything?”

You know it should be everything, but …

“Uh, actually, I’ll take a Boston cream doughnut, too.”

“Drive through, please.”

There’s a problem with that last direction: There’s very little driving going on at drive-thrus, just a lot of waiting. They tend to be like an American election — it takes forever to get to the end.

But surely customers inside are having the same back-ups, right? And on top of that, they all have to stand.

Actually, studies have shown that it’s quicker to park your vehicle and go inside to place your order. I’ve noticed this from personal experience. Try it yourself. Choose a car in the drive-thru and see how far it’s progressed when you are on your way out. Usually it only moves up a spot or two, and is still waiting.

Time is not the only thing we’re losing by using drive-thrus, however. Gasoline is wasted when we idle our vehicles. Just 10 seconds of idling uses more gas than turning off your engine and starting it up again. In fact, only 45 seconds of idling uses roughly the same amount of fuel as driving a kilometre.

Tim Hortons says the average idling time in their drive-thrus is a minute and 40 seconds, but a University of Alberta study has shown the average to be five minutes and eight seconds.

On top of that, if you’re waiting with the windows open, you’re breathing in the toxic cocktail of chemicals that come out of the exhaust pipe — that’s something you didn’t order.

This would only be a medium concern if just a few people were using this so-called convenient feature. But drive-thrus are reaching Beatles levels of popularity lately and, as a result, they have expanded beyond fast-food chains.

The Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. has a drive-thru at one location in HRM and another in Sydney. It’s a pretty ridiculous sight to see the latter location’s parking lot completely empty as the drive-thru line is a mile long, while every vehicle is idling.

Some drive-thru lines across the country can get so long that they even make their way onto the street, which causes unnecessary congestion.

One of the most bizarre things I’ve seen was a drive-in church. It was essentially a parking lot with a large stage that allowed people to drive in, park, listen to the word of God, all while idling the car to keep an ideal temperature inside the cabin. I had to wonder what the advantages were over traditional churches. Last time I checked, they still had pews, so the convenience of sitting down wasn’t one. Drive-in churches are apparently becoming increasingly popular in the United States.

So, is it time to explore a ban on drive-thrus? Since they’re no faster, and often slower than going inside, cause environmental harm and waste our hard-earned cash, what purpose do they serve?

It should be recognized that some drive-thrus are open 24 hours a day. Employees who work the overnight shift undoubtedly feel more secure than if the restaurant was completely open. It’s a lot harder to rob a store from your car.

Also, those who are physically disabled likely find drive-thrus more convenient.

As well, parents with small children cannot leave them in the car while they go inside; and getting out the carriage, bags, toys and whatever else is needed is a hassle. I would argue that parents shouldn’t be feeding their kids fast food to begin with, but we’ll save the childhood obesity rant for another time.

So, what is the solution?

There are a few options. First, limit when drive-thrus are open. If they are open overnight, drive-thru employees retain a sense of safety, and the number of people getting a Big Mac at 4 a.m. would likely be minimal. At peak times, close them and it will reduce the large number of idling cars. Employees who normally work the drive-thru can concentrate on the line-ups inside during these hours.

Another option is making drive-thrus idle-free. There is minimal gas loss by starting and stopping your engine compared to idling, and starters in cars these days are built to withstand it. This would only work if the no-idle policy was enforced.

A third option is charging a premium to those who use drive-thrus, of course with exceptions for the disabled and parents with small children. A stunning number of single-occupancy vehicles operated by perfectly able-bodied people are idling in these line-ups. Consider the drive-thru a luxury, and people can pay the price if they so choose.

But probably the best way to deal with drive-thrus is to do things for ourselves. Making your coffee at home and bringing it in a reusable mug saves time, gas and the environment. There will be less exhaust put into our atmosphere and fewer disposable cups used. Instead of getting an unhealthy burger, why not make your own lunch at home, or support local delis and cafes?

If people choose to use drive-thrus less, the next time you treat yourself to a hamburger from a fast-food joint, you can have it with extra pickles instead of extra exhaust fumes.

Kevin Harrison is a program officer with Clean Nova Scotia.



“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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