Nor are these obstacles distributed equally across the population. Over 10 million American households do not own a car, but carless households are twice as likely to be made up of people of color, with Black households having the lowest ownership rates. Because of these racial and socioeconomic disparities, drive-in and drive-thru systems are intrinsically exclusionary, and disproportionately harm Black people, poor people, older adults, people with disabilities, and recent immigrants.
Precisely because drive-thrus encourage and require driving and automobile-oriented design, some cities, before COVID-19 struck, were taking steps away from them. Minneapolis, for example, prohibited the opening of new drive-thru facilities after 2019, saying they were inconsistent with the city’s long-term plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A handful of other cities in California, Montana, and New Jersey have instituted their own temporary or permanent bans too.
COVID-19 sent cities back in the other direction, furthering existing inequalities. In a time of emergency, businesses or social service agencies have largely failed to put together non-car options — even when many of the people most vulnerable to COVID are also more likely to lack cars.
This problem doesn’t need to exist. It isn’t hard to increase accessibility of drive-thru services for those without cars. For example, when Minneapolis was banning new drive-thrus, Portland was working to increase access to theirs. In their zoning code, Portland required that drive-thru businesses also serve people outside of cars. By simply adding one sentence to its zoning code, the city ensured no one would be excluded from basic services.
In the COVID-19 era, the same principle holds. Simple design approaches and health protocols could make drive-in and drive-thru experiences safely accommodate people outside of their vehicles. To the extent that people are diligent about wearing masks and keeping distance, showing up without a car is not likely a significantly greater safety concern. Using pre-marked spaces, or parking spaces themselves, could help ensure that people outside vehicles stay far enough apart.
Common as car ownership may be, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for full participation in U.S. society. When people open their eyes and see that something only for cars is a serious equity access problem, easy solutions abound.