Driving Miss Lazy

In praise of drive-through

Pull up to a Wendy’s drive-through window, and you can get a Baconator and a side of fries in 131 seconds. But if you try ordering an upright bagless vacuum cleaner, you can wait forever and Wendy’s won’t be able to accommodate you—and neither can McDonald’s, KFC, Sonic, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, or any other fast food chain in the land. Is there any good reason why we have dozens of places to procure deep-fried animal parts without exiting the soothing cocoons of our automobiles but must battle for parking spots and bushwhack our way through maze-like department stores whenever we need a new pair of crew socks?

Sears has introduced a new concept store in Joliet, Illinois, that finally addresses this weird imbalance of modern life. Called Mygofer, it is the world’s first drive-through department store.

Over the years, the drive-through universe has grown to include banks, pharmacies, coffee shops, wedding chapels, liquor stores, and dry cleaners. In New Alexandria, Pennsylvania, a strip club called Climax offers patrons a drive-through option, charging $10 a minute for a peek at its dancers. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, state Rep. Kevin Murphy (D-Scranton) maintains a drive-through window at his office to meet with constituents. (There’s no nudity involved, but at least it’s free.)

Meanwhile, if you want to buy a new toaster, you either have to get out of your car or pay a hefty shipping fee, only to have the UPS man knock on your door while you’re taking a nap. But if minimum-wage workers can assemble extremely complicated cheeseburgers while we idle in the drive-through lane, shouldn’t they be able to pluck an appliance off a shelf just as easily? The Mygofer test store is exploring this proposition in a former Kmart that now functions mostly as a warehouse. You order online, get in your car, drive over, and collect your loot.

In an age where convenience is king and productivity often trumps leisure as our greatest source of pleasure, drive-through commerce is an extremely timely expression of consumer desire. It’s especially appealing to disabled people who’d prefer not to get out of their cars, parents who have to manage sizable broods while shopping, and criminals who don’t like to dilly-dally. And for retailers and service providers, it’s even better. They don’t need as much space. They don’t have to deal with slobs who think that buying a cup of coffee gives them the right to pee all over the restroom floor. The drive-through approach makes one of the most unpredictable and annoying components of commerce—the customer—more manageable. It moves him through an assembly line of consumption, limiting his options and choreographing his behavior.

Shopping is transformed from an arbitrary pastime into a rationalized process with clear steps to follow: Order. Wait. Pay. Leave. Additional customers who enter the assembly line become the de facto managers of those ahead of them, their presence pressuring stragglers to keep moving forward in efficient fashion. Labor costs drop and profit margins rise. In the utopian scenario, consumers speed from shop to shop to shop, slowing for fuel breaks at Burger King and wallet refills at drive-through ATMs but never actually coming to a standstill until the cargo capacities of their cars are reached. Hey, maybe it’s time to start thinking about getting a Hummer!

Not everyone shares this dream. In 2000 Wendy’s led the industry in speediness, taking an average of only 150.3 seconds to serve customers at its drive-through window. By 2008 it had reduced its average serving time to 131 seconds. But that’s still 131 seconds during which drivers are idling wastefully. According to Sierra Club estimates, people waiting at fast food restaurants burn about 50 million gallons of gasoline a year. At the U.S. national average of $2.67 per gallon (as of October 26, 2009), that’s $133.5 million, or 27,300,613 Baconators, which, at 830 calories per Baconator, could feed exactly 35,273 100-pound supermodels every day for a year.

Actually, in the big scheme of things, 50 million gallons of gas isn’t all that much. In fact, it’s less than 0.03 percent of the 140 billion gallons of gas we use each year. And there are drive-through advocates who claim drive-throughs are, relatively speaking, the environmentally correct way to go. In 2008, for example, the Canadian coffee and donut chain Tim Hortons commissioned an engineering consulting firm called RWDI to compare the environmental impact of its drive-through outlets to that of its outlets without drive-throughs. Based on traffic surveys conducted at four stores during peak hours, RWDI concluded that the outlets without drive-throughs produced 40 percent to 70 percent more smog pollutants and carbon monoxide and 10 percent to 30 percent more greenhouse gases than the ones that had them. The difference was due to idling that occurs in the parking lot as drivers hunt and wait for spaces, the extra distance traveled during this process, and the extra engine start-up after customers complete their transactions and return to their vehicles.

Granted, a single study of four stores, commissioned by a company with a huge incentive to promote the benefits of drive-throughs, is hardly going to stand as the last word on the subject. For many, the drive-through—and especially the fast-food drive-through—is the most potent symbol of the unhealthy, car-centric culture that’s making us fat and sick, poisoning the planet, and locking us into an alienating, stressed-out consumerist lifestyle that, for all its abundance and variety, doesn’t deliver true satisfaction and is ultimately unsustainable. Fifty years from now, anti-drive-through advocates exclaim, it won’t matter how fast Wendy’s can serve you an Original Chocolate Frosty. We’re still going to be drowning in sizzling seas made from melted icebergs. All across Canada and the U.S., there are efforts to prohibit drive-throughs, just as there have been for at least the last two decades.

But even as city councils contemplate bans, drive-throughs proliferate. In Frankenmuth, Michigan, there is even a drive-through farmer’s market. It takes place in a McDonald’s parking lot, so if customers want to augment their Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets with freshly harvested zucchini or leeks, they can. Health care providers now regularly offer drive-through flu shots and other medical services. And of course there’s Mygofer, which, if it catches on, will pretty much allow you to purchase anything you can fit through your car window without ever turning off your ignition. The drive-through lane may yet be in its infancy.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Suki||

    Sounds like a dream to me!

  • IceTrey||

    I miss the drive thru daiquiri huts in Louisiana so much!

  • Citizen Nothing||

    I've got an artist friend who has a gallery with a drive-through window. It used to be a bank. She's still figuring out how to use it for maximum artistic value. I suggested a pornographic installation of some kind, visible only to drive-through customers.

  • Suki||

    Great suggestion. See some of the recent blog posts without the toil of driving ;)

  • ||

    Mygofer

    Terrible name choice. This sounds oddly clinical, like a rare skin disease or new antianxiety drug.

  • Ska||

    I would go shopping a lot more often if there were drive-thrus. Just the parking lot madness at many places is enough to make me say "fuck it, I can live without [product x] for another week."

  • SKR||

    Having moved from Ohio to Los Angeles, the thing I miss most of all is the drive-thru liquor store.

  • Jeffersonian||

    Having spent eight months or so in Akron nearly 30 years ago, I can say that's the only redeeming feature of that burg.

  • ||

    For Ohio, you really could not do much worse than Akron, that truly is about the worst part of the state, although I never cared much for any of the North due to the rough climate.

  • skr||

    HAHAHa, I'm from Canton and though we are right next to Akron the only reason to head up that way was for drugs. What a shithole, though Youngstown is the absolute worst.

    I got out as quickly as possible and one of the reason was the climate. It is pretty brutal.

  • ||

    Clearly you've never been to southeastern Ohio.

  • ||

    Agree. When I was living in Southern O, they had drive up windows at most of the liquor stores. But I also remember the pole barns that sprung up in some more rural areas where you would just drive your car through and they would have a bunch of young guys loading up cases of beer in the back of pick-up trucks, lol. You could also buy beer there in gas stations, and if I remember correctly, grocery stores. I hate the fact that you can only buy beer in a liquor store here in MD, but at least there is one right next to every grocery store and they are open on Sundays. I lived in one state that you could not buy any alcohol on Sunday, which led to frequent crappy football Sundays in which you failed to hide enough beer from your friends on Saturday night to have any left for the game.

  • oaktownadam||

    And as a former Virginian, I can remember many times we drove to Maryland to purchase liquor on Sundays or after 7pm, when the state-run liquor stores would close. At least you can buy beer and wine at the grocery store there, and there was no "open container" law, either.

  • ||

    Perfect for those occasions when a person might be too drunk to walk.

  • Jim Smith||

    Yeah-uh!

  • ||

    I eschew drive-thrus whenever possible, and I park at the back of parking lots specifically to avoid the chaos of those who will risk the life and limbs of themselves and those around them to get a close parking spot.

    But I would be royally pissed if pols or activist groups tried to outlaw or otherwise use governmental force to discourage the implementation of drive-thrus. If someone wants to use one, then they should get to sue one and everyone else should STFU about it.

  • oaktownadam||

    How exactly are you avoiding the crazy people if you have to walk through the entire parking lot, without the protection of your car?

  • Detective Baylor||

    My question exactly.

  • DC Snowballer||

    My question exactly.

  • ||

    I have ninja reflexes.

  • Suki||

    LOL

  • ||

    Can I get a huge rack of ribs in the drive-thru that is so heavy it tilts my car over? Because if I can't, it's bogus anyway.

  • ||

    That was my first thought too. Freak.

    Progressive dilemma: Fred's preferred mode of transportation was his two feet (got the song in your head yet?). This makes him green-friendly and non Earth raping. However, he frequently yelled for his wife. This makes him a misogynist. What's an ecofeminist to do?

  • ||

    Marry Barney.

  • Kevin||

    He is also raping the land as he works in a quarry. And I heard Mr. Slate does not allow unionization.

  • Suki||

    You'll have a gay old time.

  • HeadTater||

    The Tim Horton's study data is not unbiased because Tim Horton's has something to gain by saying drive troughs are better for the environment. What about the Sierra Club claims? They have more to gain by saying drive-thrus are bad than Tim Horton's does by saying they are good.

  • ||

    drive troughs are better for the environment.

    I don't know about you, but I like to use cutlery and my hands, so I don't like sticking my face directly in my food and eating it. And even if I did, I would not want to be sharing the same food with several other faces that are stuck in there. And how do you do that while driving anyway?

  • Cliché Bandit||

    hot tea all over keyboard and monitor.

    Oink!

  • KWebb||

    Grocery stores before the 1920s or so operated in a similar manner as the Mygofer idea. Tell the grocer what you want, he goes and picks it off the shelf while you wait in the store or have it delivered to your house.

  • ||

    How much overhead is caused by letting shoppers paw all the goods ya think?

    Dropped items, shoplifting, all the stocking effort.

  • Enyap||

    Most grocery stores in Jamaica where like that, when I visited a few years back.

  • ||

    Tim Horton's is the only thing I miss about living in Canada.

    IIRC there is a Timmy's drive-thru just past the border crossing I use to get to the folks'. Now I can at least look forward to a double double, if not the holiday-with-family part.

  • ||

    I left Canada before Tim Hortons became the institution it is today.

    So while others hear the name Tim Horton and think of donuts, I just think "over the hill hockey player driving Porsche into bridge abutment".

  • ||

    Visited northern New York this summer and tried some Tim Horton donuts. They were pretty bad, but the coffee was decent...

  • ||

    Interestingly, the photo on the link to page of a sign that says "The Beer Depot" is from The Beer Depot in Ann Arbor ( http://www.waymarking.com/waym.....r_Michigan ). They have not had drive-thru service in years due to state action to prevent their ability to transfer a liquor license to a new location. ( http://www.michigandaily.com/c.....hru-window ). The owners have kept the sign up for nostalgia's sake.

  • ||

    I once stopped at a liquor store while driving through Michigan to buy a 6 pack to drink when I got to my hotel room later that evening. When I went to the counter and the guy rang it up(6 pack of import), this has been about 10 years ago, and he said it was eleven dollars and some odd cents, I had to look at what was on the counter at least 3 times to make sure I had not accidentally picked up a 12. Not sure what is up with the prices there, but now that beer is probably $15 a 6 pack there and there is no jobs and a very shitty climate that has not been relieved by the supposed global warming, I am not sure why anyone would want to live in that state, Beer Depots or not. Although, there is a brewery there in a little town named Frankenmuth that had the best Hefeweizen that I have tried to this day.

  • hurly buehrle||

    I knew it! I thought that sign looked familiar. And yes, there is no actual drive-thru there anymore.

  • Publilius||

    The fate of the Depot’s drive-thru was sealed when the store changed locations in 2003 from South State Street to its current location on East William Street with the transfer of ownership,

    Do they have this backwards? I took classes at the Univ of Mich back in the 1970s, and this place was on William Street back then.

  • ||

    Working the drive-thru at Walgreen's Pharmacy, folks always tried to get me to run into the sundry aisles to get their single-roll TP or a bag of Fun-Size Snickers for them.

    Being young and full o'sand, I suggested they fuck themselves instead. Different job market in those days, of course.

  • qwerty||

    The best(?) I ever heard was a drive-through funeral home. You got to see the body as you drove up to the window.

  • Morti||

    It was in Hattiesburg, MS. Used to take out-of-town friends to it back in high school.

  • dfd||

    Liquor 2 Go in Dallas looks pretty good. Wish we had that around here.

    It even looks kinda cool when all lit up at night so it's easy to spot when you're drunk!

  • The Bearded Hobbit||

    When the neo-prohibitionists here in New Mexico were screaming to shut down the drive-up windows I was asking everyone if closing the windows had no effect on DWI rates would they open them back up again?

    Sure enough the results came back a while back that the DWI rates were unchanged before and after the closings.

    And the windows are still closed.

    ... Hobbit

  • Suki||

    The more I hear about that state the less I want to visit.

  • The Man||

    $10 a minute?

  • Mike Beato||

    I like drive-throughs for everything -- except food purchases. I like to see my food when I buy! Last night I went inside a local Tim Hortons to buy a couple of cookies, leaving my 19-yr old son in the car while to wait for me. It took at least 10 minutes to get waited on because the two guys working inside were waiting on the drive-through customers, not the people inside. My son was getting worried about my long disappearance, imagining that I was either robbed or had a heart attack while inside. Maybe next time I'll just drive through and buy my cookies sight unseen.

  • ||

    Very silly argument. Basically, all that's being accounted for is the fuel used during 131 seconds of idling. It doesn't account for 1) the hot or cold air that escapes when the little drive through window is open, meaning more emissions from the heater or air conditioner in the restaurant, 2) the air that escapes when customers open the door to the restaurant, 3) the carbon emitted while parking, waiting to back out of a spot, etc, and 4) the carbon emitted when re-starting the car.

    In addition, without a drive through, isn't there a greater likelyhood of someone sitting outside in a car idling (for an even longer period)while a passenger runs in for food? That's what I'd make my wife do (just kidding, honey).

    Other factors include psychological/behavioral differences affecting what people order when they go inside vs. the drive through. Don't let me near a ketchup dispenser or self-service soda fountain if you want to make a profit.

    That said, maybe ketchup packets (more common in drive-thru) are less carbon friendly than the stuff in the bulk tubs.

    Basically, my point is there are way too many factors in play to determine whether the wasted emissions actually do more harm to the environment and to focus in on one of them and ignore the others is ignorant.

  • abercrombie milano||

    I like drive-throughs for everything -- except food purchases. I like to see my food when I buy! Last night I went inside a local Tim Hortons to buy a couple of cookies, leaving my 19-yr old son in the car while to wait for me. It took at least 10 minutes to get waited on because the two guys working inside were waiting on the drive-through customers, not the people inside. My son was getting worried about my long disappearance, imagining that I was either robbed or had a heart attack while inside. Maybe next time I'll just drive through and buy my cookies sight unseen.
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  • ||

    I suspect one reason for the popularity of drive-throughs at restaurants is that customers can still smoke.

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