Portland’s Fast-Food Drive-Thrus Have Been Transformed Into Bike Lanes

We tested the new rules by riding scooters to the Taco Bell window. It wasn’t appetizing. But it was possible.

One year ago, the Portland City Council ordered fast-food restaurants to open their drive-thru windows to patrons without cars.

It's working. A late-night test of the fast-food chains' compliance shows workers don't bat an eye when customers arrive at their windows on foot, bike or electric scooter.

The city successfully transformed its drive-thrus into bike lanes—at least at night when the dining rooms close. And it's not just burger joints: The rules apply to banks and pharmacies, too. If the walk-in lobby closes, people on two wheels have the same rights to the drive-thru as drivers on four wheels.

"You shouldn't have to own a car to patronize a business," says Chris Smith, who crafted the change to the city code as a member of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission. "If so, we're basically saying, 'Hey, there's a set of businesses, at least at certain times, you can only patronize if you can wrap a steel can around yourself.'"

Few other U.S. cities require businesses with drive-thrus to serve customers on bikes or foot. The push for the new rule came from the bicycling community, says Eden Dabbs, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. City officials say they aren't aware of a single complaint since the rules went into effect—either from cycling patrons denied service or businesses objecting to the policy.

Still, WW wanted to test it. On a recent Saturday night, we walked, biked and scootered our way through five popular Portland drive-thrus. During our tour, we inhaled too much exhaust, talked to unruffled employees, and clogged our arteries.

It wasn't appetizing. But it was possible.

Time: 10:10 pm

Location: Super Deluxe

5009 SE Powell Blvd.

Mode of Transportation: Scooter

Experience: While we wait in the drive-thru lane, an employee, Oliver Cushman, leans over the fence of the outdoor eating area to ask if our electric scooter will be heavy enough to activate the electronic plate that alerts staff to a vehicle. "Maybe you can all stand on the plate?" he suggests. No need: It works fine. Another employee at the pickup window says Super Deluxe gets a lot of people walking through the drive-thru, so pedestrians just have to pass by the front door first so that employees see them. A man sitting in the car behind us rolls the window down and leans out. "Hey! Did you get it?" Yes, we did.

Verdict: Success.

Time: 10:35 pm

Location: Burgerville

3432 SE 25th Ave.

Mode of Transportation: Bicycle

Experience: The Burgerville drive-thru is brightly lit but designed with a blind turn from the lot that doesn't seem particularly bike- or pedestrian-oriented. The worker at the window is friendly. She says they get some bikers via the drive-thru, although she doesn't know the exact number. But she says as long as our preferred mode of transportation sets off the magnet plate, it would be fine—"so a car, a bike, or even those scooter things that are all around town now…we got one of those two, three months ago."

Verdict: Success, but watch out for the blind corners used by cars.

Time: 11:15 pm

Location: Wendy's

1421 NE Grand Ave.

Mode of Transportation: On foot

Experience: Despite jumping around and waving in front of the ordering screen, the sensor can't detect us, so no one asks for our order. We go directly to the window. The worker hasn't seen a lot of pedestrians before, but says it's "chill."

We meet three men who also walked up to the window. They're visiting from San Jose, where they say they can't walk through drive-thrus. As we talk, one of them goes back for the soft drinks he forgot to pick up—wedging himself between the Wendy's wall and the car that has arrived at the window. "We're just really high, man. We thought we'd try it," says Chon Scoggins, clutching his meal.

Verdict: Success, but maybe don't do this while stoned.

Time: Midnight

Location: Taco Bell

725 NE Weidler St.

Mode of Transportation: On foot, bicycle and a (dead) scooter

Experience: Fourth Meal is popular. The drive-thru line is so long that cars occasionally drive away. The thick smell of exhaust and the glare of brake lights are nausea-inducing. By the time we reach the window, after 25 minutes of standing, we have forgotten our orders and lost our appetites.

One of the cars behind us rolls down the window, and its passengers wave us over to ask what we're doing. Christian Brown, in the backseat, says he tried this in New Jersey a couple years ago. "They wouldn't even let me through," he says.

The worker at the window seems stressed but friendly. We ask if a lot of people walk, bike or scooter through. "I've only been here a month, but I'd say you're the second," he says.

Verdict: Success, but at what cost?

Time: 12:30 am

Location: McDonald's

1520 NE Grand Ave.

Mode of Transportation: Bicycle

Experience: We tried hitting up this Mickey D's before the dining room closed. No dice. The employee at the window signaled us into the lobby before we said a word.

After midnight? A different story. We bike through without incident. The employee at the window, John Vigil, says people regularly come through without cars—he's used to it.

A couple passes us on foot, gazing at the Golden Arches wistfully. "I wish we could just go through the drive-thru," says the woman, Becky Sasso. We tell her she can.

"You can't do this where I'm from," says Sasso's partner, Jens Maansson, who is Swedish. He adds that, when he was 12 years old, he and some friends tried once after a soccer game but failed.

"This is great," says Maansson, gesturing expansively. "This is the American dream."

Verdict: Success. If Maansson's happy, we're happy.

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.