Could drive-thru bans transform eating out in Canada?

October 29 2018

Much as many people enjoy a night out at a restaurant, there are some days when life is just too busy by half, and dropping in at a local drive-thru to pick up some fast food is a quick and easy alternative. But it seems the days of this option may be numbered.

An increasing number of Canadian cities are curbing fast food drive-thrus, with either total bans, or partial prohibitions that limit such outlets to specific places, like busy highways. 

Indeed, a recent University of Alberta study published in the Biomed Central Public Health Journal found 27 communities across the country have imposed bans of one sort or another. These range from big cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary to municipalities within urban areas, such as Beaumont, in the Edmonton region. 

The study noted that these bans had been implemented between 2002 and 2016, with Toronto leading the way. Smaller towns like Kelowna and Markham did likewise in 2003, but the next major city to impose a ban was Vancouver in 2006. Calgary followed in 2007.

School of Public Health professor and co-author of the study Candace Nykiforuk explained the intended benefits of the ban to Global News. Appearing on 630 CHED’s Afternoon News, she said the quality of food is not the only issue at stake. Instead, she suggested, there was a wider issue of improving downtown areas, by creating more space for communities rather than cars, as well as cutting noise and litter.

She added: "That means promoting not just healthy eating, promoting walking [and] other forms of active transportation, but also inviting other people to come out of their cars, come out of their homes and integrate and connect with people and businesses in their community."

This is backed up by the study, which noted combating obesity and poor diets was not the primary reason cited by municipalities that had imposed bans. At the same time, the study concluded, the implications of the use of bans are "evolving and dynamic", adding that they could increasingly become "part of a comprehensive, multi-pronged strategy to promote healthier food environments and improve population health". 

It all sounds very high-minded stuff, but a ban would also have a limited impact, since it would only stop the proliferation of new drive-thru windows, not close existing ones. 

Even so, Professor Nykiforuk suggested one of the major beneficiaries could be smaller restaurants, who could benefit from consumers having to change the way they eat out. 

This, therefore, begs an interesting question; can smaller restaurants capitalize on the development of downtown areas where the option of dashing to a drive-thru is absent? The question is not an easy one to answer, as not all consumers will respond in the same way. For instance, those who go to a fast food outlet by car because they are short of time are not going to suddenly park up and go to a sit-down restaurant. 

It is more likely, therefore, that the ban could lay down a challenge to people who maybe take an easy option of getting fast food without even getting out of the car; for these people, the removal of the drive-thru is an invitation to get out of their vehicles, be more sociable and start discovering the many high-quality culinary alternatives that are available.