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Why are so many American cities banning fast-food drive-thrus?

Proponents claim decreasing drive-thru windows will help combat obesity, improve walkability and push back on pollution.
/ Source: TODAY

A growing number of local legislatures in cities across the country want to put an end to drive-thru windows.

In August, Minneapolis became the latest city to pass an ordinance banning the construction of new restaurant drive-thrus. Officials say the ban will help curb pollution, make the city more walkable and improve health problems pertaining to obesity. Other places that have enacted similar measures say they are aiming to combat traffic, cut carbon monoxide emissions and litter.

But fear not, Chick-fil-A fiends, the zoning changes currently in effect only affect new construction. Thus far, cities in California, Missouri and New Jersey have implemented similar bans.

Still, many consumers are worried about one of their favorite conveniences being taken away. Some have pointed out how important drive-thrus are for customers who are disabled, the elderly and parents who may not easily be able to get their kids out of the car for a quick bite.

Other folks say they think the bans won't help decrease CO2 emissions because people may just leave their cars running while they wait for someone else to pick up the food.

There is, however, increasing support for the bans. Some say curbing access to even faster fast food may help aid in reversing urban obesity rates, while also helping to improve road traffic accidents.

According to the National Restaurant Association, 25% of restaurant visits in the U.S. occur at a drive-thru window. So would limiting the number of new ones just drive folks inside or actually change American dining habits?

One of the first municipalities to prohibit new and expanded drive-thrus was South Los Angeles in 2008. They also banned the construction of new stand-alone fast-food restaurants. In 2015, a non-profit research organization called RAND published a study examining the ban's impact on diet and obesity in L.A. County from 2007 to 2012. Its researchers found obesity actually increased among residents in the area.

"The South Los Angeles fast-food ban may have symbolic value, but it has had no measurable impact in improving diets or reducing obesity," said Roland Sturm, the lead author of the study.

Sturm and his team found that the ban had little effect on preventing people from getting their meals while driving since there were still plenty of places where consumers could find a window. The number of sugary soft drinks consumed per person — another target in the fight against obesity — did see a drop.

However, America's neighbors to the north saw different results when a similar ban was enacted in several provinces.

A 2018 study analyzing drive-thru bans in 27 Canadian cities found that "fast food drive-through service bans may play a role in promoting healthier food environments." The researchers noted that more studies must be done to determine whether these bans have any long-term effects on preventing chronic diseases.