Vancouver Province column: Those trying to ban drive-throughs haven’t thought the issue through

The Province
Monday, January 28, 2008

It’s open season on fast-food restaurants across Canada.
Recent years have seen a deluge of reports and warnings about the harmful health effects of everything from super-sized cheeseburger lunches to caffeine-laden cappuccinos.

Celebrity chefs never pass up an opportunity to take a swipe at North America’s most popular hamburger stands — and, by extension, the customers who frequent them. And now these establishments are taking the rap for global warming.

Last week, a City of North Vancouver politician called for a ban on drive-through restaurants in his North Shore community.

Coun. Sam Schechter argues that folks with a hankering for french fries or a milkshake should park their cars, instead of idling them in front of a Plexiglas window while waiting for their order.

Other Canadian cities, including Mississauga, Kitchener and Hamilton are also considering the ban.

Given the attention being paid to Schechter’s proposal, other Metro Vancouver communities might be looking to follow suit.

I don’t doubt the councillor means well by taking aim at reducing air pollution in our region. But any move to quash this convenience would be primarily symbolic — and, dare I say, frivolous.

Worse, it could easily backfire on the local green lobby, if it’s perceived by the public to be crying wolf.

That’s because cars idling at drive-throughs represent a tiny fraction of total carbon emissions, especially in North Vancouver City, where the total number of these eateries is all of one.

The Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association has rightly pointed out that more pollution could be created by motorists circling the block in their quest for parking rather than driving up to a take-out window.

One recent study from Tim Hortons — currently under review by scientists from Carleton University and the University of Ottawa — concluded that a car idling at a drive-through is less harmful to the environment than one turned off and on again in a restaurant parking lot.

If they really want to reduce emissions from automobiles, Schechter and other drive-through bashers should instead concern themselves with our region’s worsening traffic congestion, less-than-adequate public transit and sky-high housing prices that force working families to commute from sprawling suburbs.

There’s a lamentable undercurrent of elitism at play here.

Drive-throughs often cater to working folks who are bound to their vehicles, such as taxi drivers and trades workers, not to mention late-night shift workers who appreciate the convenience and safety of a drive-up meal.

They’re also helpful to folks with mobility issues and parents with small children.

It’s vital that we tackle the culprits of air pollution head-on in our communities.

But let’s not waste our time bullying the car-friendly purveyors of frappuccinos and fried snacks — not to mention the soccer moms and working stiffs they cater to.

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