Environment: Rumble at the Tim's drive-thru

Tim Hortons' message to anti-drive-thru critics: parked cars cause more pollution.

Every motorist knows that drive-thru windows are convenient, but did you know they also are responsible for all kinds of social and civic good? Drive-thrus are valuable to the elderly, the immobile, parents with small children and, believe it or not, are actually better for the environment than cars in parking lots — or so says TDL, the parent company of Tim Hortons.

Facing a tide of municipal anti-drive-thru ordinances, TDL commissioned a study last year from RWDI consultants, based in Guelph, Ont., comparing total emissions given off by customers’ cars that use drive-thrus and those that use parking lots. The controversial result — that cars using drive-thrus produce lower emissions than those using parking lots — is now part of the company’s arsenal when it takes on councils planning drive-thru bans. Such bans are a challenge for every drive-thru-based business, but the stakes are especially high for Tim Hortons — last year, 50% of its $2 billion revenue came in via the drive-thru.

TDL has successfully fought restrictions in several Ontario cities, including London and Ottawa. Its latest struggle has been in the city of Kingston, where it currently has 15 Tim Hortons drive-thrus and wants to add six more. The conflict arose in April, when Kingston’s planning committee drafted a city plan that prohibited building new drive-thrus in the historic downtown area.

Michael Polowin, an attorney for TDL, sent the city council letters objecting to the plan. City staff — whose drive-thru concerns include traffic congestion and impact on nearby residents as well as emissions — met with Polowin and changed the wording of the policy. But TDL was still unsatisfied. “It made it exceedingly difficult under that language to potentially locate a drive-thru anywhere in Kingston,” says Polowin.

Early last month, Polowin presented the RWDI report to Kingston council. Its conclusion — that drive-thrus create fewer emissions than parking lots — is based on a finding that when parkers turn off their cars, the catalytic converter cools and is less efficient at reducing emissions. And so, when the customer restarts the car, a larger, initial spurt of emissions is released. There are a lot of variables to consider when comparing the emissions generated by a parking lot and a drive-thru. While drive-thrus are generally thought of as bad for the environment because people tend to idle their cars, Michael Lepage, a principal with RWDI, says, “the one thing people have missed is how much time people spend idling in the parking lot.”

Despite Tim Hortons’ claim to have science on its side, the Kingston committee refused to change its plan. TDL then threatened to appeal the matter to the Ontario Municipal Board, which ruled in TDL’s favour in a similar dispute in Ottawa. Polowin also threatened to take civil action if the two sides could not reach a consensus.

On Nov. 20, the city planning committee agreed to change the official plan so that additional drive-thrus could not be located in “special policy areas,” like the historic downtown, unless the company submits an urban design study that satisfies the overall plan. That, apparently, is a loophole TDL can live with. Carbon-conscious coffee drinkers, meanwhile, are free to resort to an even greener alternative: walking.