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Guest Opinion | Carl Selkin: Drive-Thru to a Dead End

Published on Thursday, October 21, 2021 | 5:58 am
 

You may remember the drive-in culture of the 1950s. Drive-in movies, A &W or Bob’s Big Boy car window service by roller skating servers. That was about it.  Going to one of those venues was a fairly infrequent adventure, a family outing or a hot date. It was the era of the Sunday drive, necking and poodle skirts.

Fast forward to the drive-thru culture. No longer a special occasion, we have transformed auto-driven convenience and it has changed us. Now lining up to a MacDonald’s window is an integral part of the daily commute, unless you happen to be the Starbucks’ mocha latte whatever and cheese-filled croissant kind of person. The caffeinated entry lane is just a bit further down the avenue.

A couple of weeks ago I learned that a defunct nearby hamburger drive-thru on North Lake Avenue is destined to be replaced by a fowl-centric drive-thru. Apparently, to zoning commissioners and city planners, one drive-thru may without much reflection be replaced by another, with a nod to making a failing venue commercially sustainable by adding capacity to the lot area. The larger lot and a new traffic light anticipate increased utilization—that is, more cars coming through. More traffic entering and exiting, idling while chicken fries on gas-fired grills or bakes in gas-fired ovens. The basic business plan relies on a larger carbon footprint, say from a size eight to a size ten.

So, it is not really a simple substitution. Plus, since the days of the drive-in we have learned a thing or two about the double threats of air pollution and climate warming. Smog days of the past were an inconvenience that we could see plainly enough as the San Gabriels slid behind the smoke screen and our kids were kept from the freedom of play at PE and recess. Later we learned to count up the cost in lost work, asthma deaths, and lung disease. The clean air act and the EPA were President Nixon’s contributions to the America in which we saw more clearly. Adding traffic exhaust to our air imprisoned by the foothills seems like shifting into reverse.

Our warming climate is an even greater threat than smog. Don’t get me wrong, I do not think that curtailing traffic on Lake Avenue will save the planet. There may be adverse effects for local residents and commuters whose lungs will be scarred as they wait for the newly installed traffic control. But no reduction of emissions on Lake Avenue will save the Earth from the existential threat every climate scientist (rounding up from 99.9%) reads in the atmosphere.

Yet as people responsible for creating the future, we are obliged to measure the impact of what we choose to do, our legacy to generations now coming into their own but not yet empowered as we are. As we experienced the evolution from drive-in to drive-thru, we need to recognize that our auto-dependence leads to a dead end. Creating a drive-through perpetuates the status quo for the length of its existence and beyond. The global changes we need must be built into the local environments now while we have some control. Giving up by giving in to doing business as usual is not a survivable option,

We owe ourselves and our children the courage to make even the small changes that will make the net-zero carbon future practical.  Rejecting drive-thrus as usual is one small step for Pasadena. Redesigning a city freer of cars, as many other municipalities are now doing, is an additional step forward, one anticipated in the Pasadena General Plan. The change to Pasadena’s profile as a heat island, an area of asphalt and concrete five or six degrees warmer at night than surrounding countryside, will quickly improve the health and habitability of our city. The commitment through action today to the changes we need to make will smooth the way to sustainability and a much cooler planet. Chick-fil-A may be the best of its breed, but we can’t afford to play chicken with our future.

Carl Selkin, PhD is Retired Dean of Arts and Letters at California State University, Los Angeles,  and former  Vice President for Education at The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County,  Carl Selkin is currently on the leadership team of the Social Justice Committee, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center.

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