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Drive-Throughs Run Into Roadblocks

Land use: Complaining of noise and traffic, more communities impose curbs on fast-food outlets.


Despite the big smiles, these are nervous times for Ronald and Jack. Tommy and Carl Jr. are getting a little edgy, too.

Cars may be king in Southern California but local governments are slamming the brakes on drive-through fast-food restaurants following growing complaints by neighbors about noise and traffic.

After defining the regional landscape since the 1960s, and then spreading nationwide, drive-through eateries are now being cast as the land-use pariahs of the 1990s, joining strip malls and landfills.

The city of Sierra Madre this year banned drive-through restaurants. Last year, Burbank barred fast-food restaurants from operating drive-through windows 24 hours a day. Officials in South Pasadena have imposed a temporary ban while they draft tougher drive-through restrictions. And Los Angeles is starting to charge higher permit fees to new outlets to pay for traffic improvements.

Several other Southern California cities have begun restricting the hours that restaurants can operate drive-through windows, a trend industry representatives worry may begin to spread to cities around the country.

Even the state's Air Resources Board has taken a shot at the ubiquitous drive-through, saying that cars idling in line contribute to Southern California's air pollution.

Drive-through restaurants are largely victims of their own success. The country's fast-food giants--McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's--scored record sales this year, with franchises being added as fast as 14% annually.

Profits from fast-food outlets nationwide are expected to surpass traditional walk-in restaurants this year for the first time.

For a $100-billion industry that earns nearly half its profits from drive-through windows, the restrictions and bans are clearly worrying industry leaders.

"This is not a good trend," said Stan Kyker, executive vice president of the California Restaurant Assn.

Kyker and other fast-food industry representatives, who prefer the label "quick-service restaurants," say drive-throughs simply serve motorists already traveling on nearby roads, and therefore do not create traffic problems.

Planning and transportation experts seem to agree.

Although there are few studies on the subject, George Lefcoe, a USC land-use and real estate professor, said most drive-through customers stop at the restaurants on the way to another destination. The restaurants, he said, should not be blamed for the traffic that they serve.

"If cities want to get rid of these businesses, they are kissing goodbye to an awful lot of money and keeping a lot of traffic," Lefcoe said.

Restaurant industry groups also dispute a long-standing belief by air quality officials that idling cars lined up at drive-through windows are a big contributor to Southern California's smog problem.

Ten fast-food restaurant chains paid for a study several years ago that concluded that customers of walk-up restaurants contribute more to the smog problem by stopping and starting their cars in the parking lot than motorists who idle in the drive-through line.

Jerry Martin, a spokesman for the state's Air Resources Board, acknowledged that engines spew more emissions when they are started cold than when a warm engine is idling. But he said that a car idling at a drive-through window line for 10 to 15 minutes creates about as much pollution.

"It has been fairly clear that if you are going to sit in a line at a drive-through restaurant for more than a few minutes, it's better to park the car and go in to make your purchase," he said.

But it's not the smog that rankles neighbors. The most common complaints are over teenage loitering, trash and the noise from the loudspeakers used by customers to order their food.

Those issues are what prompted Burbank to ban 24-hour drive-through windows last year, said Carolyn Berlin, a former homeowner leader and member of the Burbank Planning Board.

"If they would have been able to get control of this, we wouldn't have taken this action," she said.

Despite the ban, Berlin said, there is no evidence the city has scared off fast-food restaurants from proposing new outlets in Burbank.

In South Pasadena, where there is one drive-through restaurant, the City Council voted last week to extend a yearlong moratorium on opening any more. Residents there say that too many of that type of eatery would erode their community's small-town character.

Several customers at the South Pasadena McDonald's said they understand the concern about traffic problems but would hate to be without the convenience of their local drive-through window.

"The drive-through makes it a lot easier with kids because you don't have to drag them in and out of the restaurant," said Maureen Delacruz, who waited in line with her son, Michael, squirming in the passenger seat.

She was joined by a long line of lunchtime customers Friday, including other mothers ferrying their preschool- and kindergarten-age children through the window line for a quick meal.

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