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Minneapolis considers a ban on new drive-thru windows

City planners want a more pedestrian-friendly Minneapolis, and drive-thrus tend to throw a wrench in things.

City planners want a more pedestrian-friendly Minneapolis, and drive-thrus tend to throw a wrench in things. Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Imagine the city 20, 40 years down the line, and envision its brand-new banks, coffee shops, and hamburger joints. Ask yourself: Do you see any drive-thru windows?

That’s the question the city is asking itself now. On Thursday, the Minneapolis Planning Commission will entertain an all-out ban on new drive-thrus throughout the city.

There are plenty of people who love drive-thrus, and it’s easy to see why. They’re quick, convenient, and don’t require leaving your car. If you’re a parent wrangling young children, or you’re disabled, you might consider them something of a miracle. So the forgive the anger over the plan, which some have responded to with incredulity and venom for the “dumbshits” behind it, as one opponent remarkedon Twitter.

But love them or not, there are plenty of cases against them. At their best, they mean more paved surfaces slick with polluted runoff, more curb cuts where pedestrians will have to dodge traffic, and the occasional phalanx of queuing cars blocking sidewalks. Then there's the din of engines and the spew of empty Taco Bell cups and Whopper wrappers neighbors often deal with.

At their worst, they can be destructive – even dangerous. As evidence, one need only remember the countless headaches and near-misses caused by the Starbucks drive-thru on Snelling and Marshall Avenues in St. Paul, all of which earned the bedeviled spot its own hashtag (#carbucks) and its own designated traffic cop.

City Council President Lisa Bender, who is championing this ordinance, says the reason city leadership started considering the ban a few years back was because of “community opposition to new drive-thrus in several locations.”

"Residents in my ward have continued to bring up the challenges these facilities bring to our neighborhoods and environment," she said in a statement. 

But the biggest issue is they effectively encourage people to drive, and that’s the opposite of what city planners want for Minneapolis. When they envision the city’s future, they see a lot more pedestrians and a lot fewer cars. They see unobstructed sidewalks, less traffic, and more room for housing and offices in place of parking lots.

In order to reach that broader vision, they’ve been taking small, calculated steps to make it harder to be a driver. Banning future drive-thrus would be just one of them. (See this article from last month about the city jacking up the price of on-street parking downtown.)

“I’m sure there will be pushback,” senior city planner Mei-Ling Smith says. But she’s hopeful Minneapolis will see the benefits. She’s not aware of any other city making such an ambitious move.

Bender and fellow council member Lisa Goodman introduced a similar plan back in 2016. On top of that, the city already has some pretty heavy restrictions on car-side windows. Minneapolis has 23 zoning districts, and new drive-thrus are only allowed in six of them.

If Minneapolis does manage to pull this off, existing pickup windows will still be there, and many stores – like Target – are evolving new delivery and pickup options that eliminate the need for a drive-thru altogether. The ban will amount to a small adjustment, but a significant one, if you factor it into a broader plan.

But that’s only if. Thursday is just the beginning of what’s sure to be a long conversation. The first public hearing on the matter should take place on June 3. If all goes according to plan, the ordinance will come before the City Council for the first time on June 27, and we can expect a full hearing and a vote on July 12.