Drivers idle their cars at the drive-thru picking up grub, at curbsides waiting to pick someone up, and on their driveways warming up their cars. (Contrary to popular belief, it’s better to warm up a car by driving it slowly rather than letting it sit idle.) While idle, a car releases twice as much exhaust compared to when it is moving and wastes gas, since just ten seconds of idling uses more fuel than re-starting the engine. The impact of idling a few minutes here and there quickly accumulates to affect the environment, our wallets, and our health.
One of the simplest things we can do to help is to stop using the drive-thru. Drive-thrus are a crime of convenience: how many times do people use it, even if there isn’t a wait inside, because it eliminates having to get out of the car? The public has to weigh whether or not the damage caused by idling in a drive-thru is worth the convenience. A study by students at the University of Alberta found that motorists in Edmonton spent almost 5,000 hours idling at drive-thrus annually; it was also estimated that, at a single Tim Hortons outlet, the carbon dioxide emissions were 385 kg per day, or about the damage 17,300 SUVs do on the road. Imagine the potential health hazard to drivers essentially bathing in fumes while waiting in line. To top it off, idling for just 15 minutes a week (say, two minutes and a bit for a coffee every day) burns through an extra $60 of fuel a year.
Toronto has hinted at expanding its drive-thru ban (drive-thrus are already prohibited from being built within 100 feet of any residential property), and while the city has enacted an anti-idling bylaw, convincing the public of the need for a full drive-thru ban will be much tougher. Drive-thrus have a heralded place in our car-loving culture as a symbol of efficiency and independence.
The city took a good first step when it stopped city vehicles from idling for more than ten seconds, and has looked at restricting city vehicles from using drive-thru services. (The reduction in emissions would be around 2,100 tonnes per year.) The next step should be deciding whether a full ban is necessary or if limitations on idling times are a better compromise. The city has to act carefully since the fast food companies are already fighting back with their own version of the story. A study commissioned by Tim Hortons suggests that a drive-thru restaurant results in less emissions and greenhouse gases since patrons don’t have to wait and search for parking. However, since customers wait on average two to three minutes for service in a drive-thru, Tim Hortons must have chosen non-drive-thru restaurants with the tiniest parking lots ever. (Remember, an idle car produces twice as much exhaust as a moving car, so customers in the study would have had to look for parking for around five minutes!) It’d be easier to judge both sides of the argument if the study was available, but since the study has not been published, the methodology can’t be commented on—how convenient is that?
Photo by Simone Ramella.