Peak Drive-Thru

Cross-posted at streets.mn and transportationist.org. WFEmeraldUniversity Wells Fargo Bank has shuttered the drive-thru bank part of its branch at University and Emerald in Minneapolis (on the St. Paul City Line). [Google Street View image shown.] This may be for several reasons, the branch is immediately across the street from a Central Corridor LRT station (under construction), its road access has consequently been constricted. It would make a nice redevelopment opportunity, so this may simply be a real estate transaction. But perhaps there are other reasons. We have achieved peak travel in the US, and internet and electronic banking has replaced much drive-thru business. I, like many pedestrians and bicyclists, am annoyed with the hostility the drive-thru gives to non-auto modes. I was reprimanded for walking up to a drive-thru ATM at a Maryland National Bank in Columbia (after many acquisitions, now part of Bank of America) ... of course there was no walk-up ATM there, or I would have used that. If I don't want to or can't deal with a person, I still have to walk-up to the drive-thru ATM at my Credit Union on University Avenue, which still does not have a walk-up (and their machine looks circa 1980). The annoying part is not just the wrong height of the ATM and the poor User Interface, it is the cross-subsidy non-driving customers give to the driving customers, who pay no extra for the larger building and infrastructure they require. Drive-thru businesses have a long history in the US, dating at least from 1930 in the banking sector. Obviously gas stations were drive-thru, and I suppose it expanded from there. I had a fascination with these types of businesses as a child, both because of their (at least banks) use of pneumatic tubes, and just because of the futuristic feeling one had doing business from a car. I was impressed when I visited my aunt who went to a drive-thru dairy store in the Philadelphia suburbs. In the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, we did not have these, though drive-thru banks were allowed in the Village Centers, at first drive-thru restaurants were not, and certainly not drive-thru groceries. We eventually got a Fotomat knock-off, and I was fascinated by the miniaturization of retail. Visiting some southern town (I'm guessing Tallahassee, but it was a couple of decades ago) when I was in college, there was the drive-thru liquor and gun store (like this one, but different), everything for good-ole-boys to have a really good time on a Friday night. There is also a drive-thru romance store in Alabama, which seems less awful and gives a different meaning to the term 'quickie'. Of course there are drive-thru 'quick-serve' restaurants, and even Starbucks, which was once aiming to be a third space, in addition to these other oddball collections. Tom Vanderbilt in a Slate article on the subject notes McDonald's gets 65 percent of US sales from drive-thru. An hour of Googling does not give me a solid number of drive-thrus in the US, but Rheitt Allain estimates about 100,000. There is better data on all restaurants, apparently the number of restaurants in the US is dropping about 2 percent according to Nation's Restaurant News to 574,050 in 2011. One assumes drive-thrus are dropping as well, though independents are experiencing most of the fall. Overall, spending for food away from home has been dropping the past few years as a function of the recession and high gas prices. The total number of bank branches seems to have peaked in 2009 (i.e. it was down in 2010, whether this is short term or permanent is of course unclear), while the number of institutions is way off the peak due to consolidation and merger. All of this portends that the US may have saturated the drive-thru market, and the direction is moving down. It is still speculative, and future data will be required to confirm this, but if so, we may be facing a more walk-up America.
David Levinson

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This page contains a single entry by David Levinson published on January 4, 2012 7:42 AM.

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