Unsustainable: Drive-through bans on bicyclists won't stand test of time

Yesterday, I was turned away on my longtail bicycle at a drive-through window. To be turned away on a bike at a drive-through is not unusual -- Taco Bell and Wells Fargo have both made waves for their bike-unfriendly policies -- though it was a surprise for me. My bike, festooned with "Love your farmer" and "One less minivan" stickers, has a seat for my toddler in front and a running board for my other two boys in back, fits in with the "flare" at Burgerville, like the sign reading "Drive Less, Save More." In fact, I've biked through that very same drive-through on that very same bike before, with my three boys aboard, for milkshakes and cheeseburgers. My family is, after all, car-free by choice (both for its budget benefits and its environmental advantages).

And I have long sung the praises of Burgerville, the ultra-green Pacific Northwest fast food joint. The company is known for its use of local, seasonal ingredients, its composting, its use of wind power, and its fryer oil recycling program; all those french fries and Walla Walla onion rings are cooked in oil that ends up in someone's biodiesel engine. It's the only fast food restaurant where I, a bit of a nut when it comes to sustainable food, will eat. I'm not the only one; I regularly find the bike rack at Burgerville full and run into other hippie, foodie families in the dining area.The situation of my bike denial was unkind; I was asked for my order and, after having issued it, was met by silence. I waited a few minutes, wondering if my request for "ketchup only" (my seven-year-old's standing order) had caused a register snafu. When silence was followed by more silence, I asked a polite question. "Have you got that?" [silence] "Hello?" [more silence]

I theorized it must be a technical malfunction and biked up to the first window, where I saw the woman with the drive-through headset removing her cash drawer from her till, glancing at me with annoyance. I proceeded to the second window -- where no cars were waiting -- and cocked my head ready to order. "We don't serve bikes at the drive through!" she yelled. "You don't?" I replied, stunned given my previous success at the very same window. "NO!" she said, while a woman behind her said, "just take her order! It'll just take a minute!"

She closed the window.

I bought hamburgers inside after much bike wrangling (my big bike wouldn't fit in an already-full bike rack), and then I tweeted. A few hours later I received a welcome and sincere apology from Burgerville's social media team, who'd called the general manager and said it was a "miscommunication," not the policy of the store. I'd already Googled and gotten feedback from friends; it may not be the policy, but I was certainly not the first one refused at either that outlet or others. One Jack in the Box restaurant nearby wouldn't even serve customers riding scooters.

I found that the drive-through ban is common (although commonly unevenly applied) across the country, and is typically a branch-by-branch policy. Here in Portland, for instance, one Bank of America branch had long allowed bike-through customers at its teller window, but stopped serving them when a new manager changed the policy. While occasionally liability for accidents is blamed, the general reason given by companies, especially bank branches and fast food restaurants, is the safety of employees. The rationale: when customers walk or bike up, it's easier for them to jump through the window and grab cash or threaten the employees, and get away fast without a license plate to record.

In other words: profiling. There is no law, statute or ethical standard prohibiting discriminating against customers on the basis of their mode of transportation (and discrimination it is, due to the common practice of having extended hours of operation at a drive-through window; besides the incredulity of only allowing customers in possession of an engine the privilege of convenience). There should be.

It's true: customers who ride bikes instead of driving cars are more likely to be poor. In Portland, Oregon, where I live, that's not as true as it is in many other cities; we're crazy for our sustainability here (and the mayor is just finishing up a month of a car-free "diet"). It is, however, untrue that bicyclists are more likely to be criminals than motorists.

And even if it was true? Refusing service to a class of customers based on their association with a group that has been prejudged as unsavory is unethical. It would be unethical to refuse service to customers who arrive in cars whose windows operated with a crank, or who drove cars whose value was less than $2,000, who drive vehicles manufactured in the 1980s; of course, these bans would have a similar purpose to the bike ban. Those who drive inexpensive vehicles, whether motorized or not, are more likely to be of the class of people who might commit violent crimes. Right? Well, maybe, but probably not. And discriminating based on mode of transportation is not just ridiculous and rude and unethical.

It's unsustainable. By which I do not mean only "not green" but also not sustainable. It won't work long-term. And it should be done away with now. As gas prices rise -- and despite what traders believe will happen over the next year or two, it is almost universally acknowledged that, over the next few decades, gas prices will rise significantly, double, triple, or even more than today's figures -- a much more substantial portion of the population will convert to human-powered vehicles. Bicycles. Tricycles. Tandems. Pedal-powered cars. Does anyone really believe opening up drive-through lanes to bicyclist and pedestrians will be a death sentence for even the tiniest fragment of drive-through employees? Seriously? Let's get a statistical risk assessment in here, please.

Drive-through bans on bicycles are head-in-the-sand, a belief that today's gas-powered-car-dominated culture is a thing that will live forever. It won't. Perhaps fast food is doomed, too -- I'd hoped that Burgerville's forward-thinking brand of fast food would have more longevity than most, but it's all based on fossil fuels and government subsidies of cheap, nutritionally-bereft food, so maybe these things will slowly trickle away concurrently.

But if I were to place my chips on a table that represented the future makeup of my customer base, it wouldn't be the drivers of motorized cars to the exclusion of all others. I would embrace a wider variety of folks. I'd choose the bikers, because not only are they statistically not criminals, they're pretty nice people, and smart and funny and rational too.

Bicyclists like fast food late at night, or milkshakes in the middle of the day, too. If policies aren't reversed, they too will realize their money is better spent elsewhere. I know I have.
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