Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Queuing Up Drive-Thru Zoning Reforms

Few uses are more emblematic of land– and carbon–intensive auto-oriented development than the drive-through restaurant. Consequently, many planners have been willing the end of drive-throughs for decades. While total bans are rare, in the first two decades of the 21st century many communities did update their zoning regulations to exclude drive-throughs from certain pedestrian-oriented districts or impose design standards that forced chains to deviate from standard building types and site plans. Then COVID hit.

As Dwight Merriam, FAICP, notes in the December issue of Zoning Practice, "Making Drive-Thrus a Boon, Not a Bane," the pandemic helped many people see drive-through services in a new light. Instead of merely being a convenience, for a brief period at least, these services were essential. Furthermore, once people built habits around drive-throughs, those habits have largely stuck. So just what does a sensible approach to zoning for drive-throughs look like?

Car Culture's Comeback

Merriam points out that it's hard to overstate just how big of an effect the pandemic had on drive-through services. In the spring of 2020, many restaurants and stores pivoted to focus exclusively (or almost exclusively) on service to motorists. And many planners gained a new respect for the vital role auto-oriented services played in local economic resilience. More than two years after the onset of the pandemic, drive-throughs still accounted for 75 percent of fast-food restaurant sales, and many businesses that previously operated sans drive-throughs have incorporated them as standard practice in new store openings.

While the acute disruption of the first wave of the pandemic highlighted the value of drive-throughs, the rise of platform-based delivery services (like Uber Eats and DoorDash) was already creating headwinds for communities interested in reducing the amount of space devoted to cars. This doesn't mean we have to surrender completely to auto-oriented development. According to Merriam, the challenge for planners is to leverage the benefits of drive-throughs, while avoiding the burdens.

Refreshed Rules for a Familiar Use

Perhaps the biggest challenge in devising reasonable zoning standards for drive-through services is that drive-throughs aren't one thing. For some businesses, drive-throughs are ancillary to in-store service. For others, the drive-thru is the "main dish." Does it make sense to hold drive-through pharmacies to the same standards as restaurants? And what about omnichannel drive-throughs built to accommodate online order pickups in addition to orders placed onsite?

Merriam suggests that the floating zone may be the ideal tool to accommodate these nuances, especially for communities that have prioritized walkability. This approach offers maximum flexibility and discretion. To help put this into practice, Merriam proposes a regulatory framework that could also work for dedicated zoning overlay or use-specific standards.

Top image: Getty Images

About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.

December 12, 2022

By David Morley, AICP