In August 2019, the Minneapolis City Council adopted an ordinance banning new drive-through windows in the city. With the adoption of the new Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan, beginning in January of 2020, all gas stations will soon be prohibited, as well. These policy changes are part of the City’s aggressive goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. While these goals are laudable, the impact of these policies is likely to be nominal at best, and will almost certainly have unintended impacts.
In other places, drive-through bans are usually adopted with the goal of curbing obesity. In Minneapolis, however, which consistently ranks as one of the healthiest cities in the nation, cutting emissions is the goal. While the few studies available have shown that drive-through bans have little or no impact on health outcomes, there is little or no evidence that such a ban will have an impact on greenhouse gasses. While it seems logical that a ban may reduce some emissions, the act is more likely to be a symbolic act signaling the city’s aggressive stance on climate change.
Minnesota law protects land uses that are subjected to new zoning regulations. An existing drive-through use that is lawfully established will become “grandfathered” or legally nonconforming when the ban goes into effect. Therefore, as long as a nonconforming drive-through remains in continuous operation, the law will protect that use in perpetuity. While a nonconforming drive-through cannot be expanded, it can be repaired, replaced, maintained, and improved, including through reuse by a new operator.
While the city ordinance alludes to “being consistent” with the goal of reducing emissions, that assumes that drivers will use drive-throughs less, which seems like wishful thinking. The policies will eliminate new drive-throughs, but the existing uses in operation are likely to continue to operate in perpetuity or at least until redevelopment of the property. From an economic perspective, banning drive-throughs actually fixes the supply. If demand increases for convenience uses, such as drive-through coffee shops, the existing uses will have a higher property value and thus, no incentive to redevelop into newer concepts that may otherwise serve their customers and align with City land use goals. Practically speaking, even if one operator goes out of business, the use may continue as long as a new operator is established within a year.
It’s clear this policy will yield little real gains in terms of reducing emissions and, at the same time, create challenges for individuals with disabilities. More than half of the dozen or so drive-throughs approved in the city from 2013-2018 were for pharmacies and banks. Unlike fast food drive-throughs, banks and pharmacies are low volume but critically necessary for individuals with disabilities. The drive-through ban does not apply to parking spaces designated for curbside pickup; however, as a practical matter, requiring store staff to walk from the store to customers is likely to increase idling time. Moreover, in sub-zero temperatures, if the city decides to enforce its ban on cars idling for over three minutes, the policy will be to force individuals with disabilities to either break the idling ordinance or sit in freezing temperatures. Accordingly, the city is asking those who rely on drive-throughs to bear the burden of the city’s new policy.
Minneapolis’s ban on drive-throughs is a symbolic act that is likely to have limited impact on greenhouse emissions. While the goal is worthwhile, this policy will ensure that existing drive-throughs will retain their value as demand increases and the supply remains consistent or decreases. And as the median age of Minnesotans continues to rise, the impacts of the city’s policies will fall disproportionately on those with disabilities and limited mobility.