Mayor Charlie Hales Wants to Ban New Drive-Thrus From Portland's Low-Car Future

Portland is still wrestling with competing visions of whether cars help or harm vulnerable people.

The Burgerville drive-thru near the Oregon Convention Center snakes between the restaurant and a brand-new apartment building.

Customers at the Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard franchise say they might not stop there without the all-American convenience of ordering milkshakes from their cars.

"When you're dragging a kid around, you don't want to have to take them out of the car," says Sabrina, 46. "Especially during the rainy season, I just don't want to go inside."

If Mayor Charlie Hales gets his way, this drive-thru will soon be an endangered species.

Hales has introduced a proposal to ban the construction of new drive-thrus in the central city and along Portland's busiest shopping streets—including this stretch of MLK in the Lloyd District. The new rules would significantly expand the map of places where idling minivans are being wiped out of Portland's low-car future.

The fierce debate over Hales' idea reveals how Portland is still wrestling with competing visions of whether cars help or harm vulnerable people.

Hales' proposal, scheduled for a vote next month, won't force existing drive-thrus to close—but that hasn't stopped the state's restaurant lobby from howling.

The Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association enlisted former state Sen. Margaret Carter (D-Portland) to star in a Facebook campaign decrying the ban.

"I hope to God that you guys will not close drive-thrus in this city," Carter says in a video showing her waiting at a Starbucks in North Portland. "You know how hard that would be on people who are disabled, on many senior citizens who have problems walking."

But advocates of the ban say it protects the elderly from cars.

"People over the age of 65 in Oregon are three times more likely than any other population to get hit and killed by a car," says Noel Mickelberry, executive director of Oregon Walks. "They're more likely to be walking, and if they're hit, it's more often fatal. That is the reality for many older adults and people with disabilities."

The argument, first reported earlier this month by the Portland Tribune, echoes debates in cities across the United States and Canada about enacting rules preventing the installation of new drive-thrus in the name of pedestrian safety.

The sites of those arguments range from Carrboro, N.C., to Minneapolis to Montreal—where a borough of the Canadian city banned all new drive-thrus in February.

In Portland, Mayor Hales' office says drive-thrus have already been severely restricted in the central city since the 1990s. Increasing those limits was suggested this winter by Hales as an amendment to the city's comprehensive plan, which directs Portland's growth for the next 20 years.

The Portland City Council is scheduled to vote on Hales' suggested rule change May 11.

"Drive-thrus are a poor use of land as we grow," says Camille Trummer, a policy adviser in the mayor's office. "You could support so many more jobs by having more available prime office space."

Eric Engstrom, a principal planner for the city, says Portland is trying to reduce the number of places where people walking must cross the path of cars.

"We're not really out to try and eliminate drive-thrus in the city," Engstrom says. "We're aware that people are probably going to be driving well into the coming century. It's more about where they're appropriate and where they're not."

Places no longer considered appropriate under the new rules? The entire central city and four commercial zones—which include places like Southeast Milwaukie Avenue between Center Street and Holgate Boulevard, and parts of Northeast Halsey Street between 114th and 122nd avenues.

Carter says she starred in the video—where she wrongly declares the city may "close drive-thrus"—because she believes strongly in the convenience they afford. "There are many more ways of helping the environment," she tells WW, "than putting further limitations on people who don't have the ability to get out of their cars."

Mickelberry, the president of Oregon Walks, works within walking distance of the Burgerville on MLK. The Lloyd District streets between that restaurant and her office are clogged with drive-thrus.

Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard is "definitely the street I'd rather be walking on than Broadway in the Lloyd District," she says. "You just have a lot less to have to pay attention to."

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