The Future of Fast Food After COVID-19, Coding and Planning, and More

About This Episode

The Planning magazine editors get together — virtually — to recap some of the stories from the April 2020 issue.

First up are drive-thrus: In the article "Is Fast-Food Through With Drive-Thrus?" author Brian Barth writes that good urban design and walkability just don't favor the car-centric fast food model anymore. But last month states and cities started closing bars and restaurants, limiting food options to takeout, delivery, and, of course, the drive-thru. All of a sudden, drive-thrus seem more relevant than ever.

The editors also discuss how e-commerce affects land use and infrastructure planning, as well as coding and how planners are using it to make sense of the vast amount of data that's out there but also to solve critical planning challenges.

Listen to the full interview with Lisa Nisenson, author of "Primed for Deliveries".

Episode Transcript


[00:00:09.060] Meghan Stromberg: Maybe you've already checked out the April issue of Planning magazine online, or you've flipped through your print copy. Maybe you've read it 18 times because most of the content is pre-COVID and that is comforting. Maybe you haven't left your house for four days or even put on pants. Well, pull on a stretchy pair, grab your headphones, and let's take a walk around your neighborhood while you tune into this episode of Cover to Cover, the April issue. I'm Meghan Stromberg, editor-in-chief at the American Planning Association and the editor of Planning magazine. As always, I'm joined by my editorial team colleagues, associate editor Mary Hamman.

[00:00:45.640] Mary Hamman: Hi there.

[00:00:47.020] MS: And Lindsay Nieman.

[00:00:48.670] Lindsay Nieman: Hey, everyone.

[00:00:50.460] MS: So has anybody gotten a chance to get out and walk around the neighborhood today?

[00:00:55.740] LN: No [laughs].

[00:00:57.120] MS: No, not yet?

[00:00:59.110] MH: I took my dog out. It's beautiful.

[00:01:01.320] MS: It is beautiful.

[00:01:02.070] MH: Sun's shining. Spring is in the air.

[00:01:05.500] LN: I've definitely been trying to do a lunch walk. It kind of breaks up the monotony and allows me to get out of my apartment a little bit.

[00:01:12.540] MS: I found a secret trail next to the river that I explored today, just hoping that I wouldn't get lost or fall into the river. But I didn't, I'm here!

[00:01:25.200] LN: Before we started social distancing, I was not one to do a lot of just aimless walking. I really only walked somewhere if I had a destination. So this has been sort of a great opportunity to just kind of wander my neighborhood and find new things and check out all of the beautiful historic buildings in my neighborhood. I live in Logan Square in Chicago, and there are just so many gorgeous buildings and beautiful flowers that are popping up and lots of great sidewalk chalk art and people have put balloons on their fencing and, you know, kids' drawing from the windows. It's been nice. It's very comforting.

[00:02:00.930] MH: To be honest, it's been a long time since I've walked for pleasure. Normally it's commuting, walking to the train to go to work, or walking my dog, which I still do plenty of, but I've noticed me strolling a little bit more. And like you said, Lindsay, looking at the flowers, I've never observed all of the various spring flowers coming up new every day. Like, it's, it's kind of amazing the new things that I've seen and observed. Yeah.

[00:02:30.840] LN: Yeah, I've been having a nice chance to watch every single new leaf on my rubber plant unfurl. That's [Meghan laughs] a new one.

[00:02:39.690] MS: Oh, you guys. This is, yeah, it's kind of nice that we're all getting a chance to get out and see our neighborhoods in a different light and slow down a little bit. I've definitely been noticing the daffodils and definitely not been stealing them from the now-empty campus university campus next to me. Yeah, it's been wonderful.

[00:03:01.530] MH: I was going to say, I've really noticed people, at least here in Chicago, embracing the social distancing, a lot of people wearing masks. It's, it's really heartening to see all of that.

[00:03:12.480] LN: Yes, I've been on my walks wearing masks made by Mary.

[00:03:16.940] MS: Oh, right. We, we found out recently that Mary has a hidden talent.

[00:03:23.880] MH: Those — other than a pillow cover, those are the only things I've ever seen in my life. So.

[00:03:29.500] MS: Well, you did a beautiful, really beautiful job. Thank you.

[00:03:32.070] LN: And I am healthy so far, so they seem to be working [Meghan laughs].

[00:03:37.130] MS: Well, should we get into this issue? There's lots to talk about in the April issue. And one of the ones that we've been hearing about from some of our readers already is this story by Brian Barth about the quintessential American invention, the fast food restaurant and the drive-thru. In the story, Brian talks about how good urban design and walkability just don't favor the car-centric fast food model anymore. Then, of course, just as the issue was going to press, states and cities started closing bars and restaurants, limiting food options to takeout, delivery, and yep, the drive-thru. All of a sudden, drive-thrus seem pretty relevant. And that's something I've actually been noticing on my walks, because I live in a really urban environment and I have a couple of drive-thrus within walking distance, and the lines are snaking out into the street. It's amazing how busy they seem to be. I don't know if you've seen any of that, but of course, I mean, it's not so surprising. It's still a cheap, convenient food option, probably, particularly maybe for essential workers. And it's also, I mean, one silver lining is it's also a source of jobs in a rough economic environment, although it does make me wonder what restaurants are doing to keep customers and employees safe, unless they've found a way to make it contactless. In the end, there's no way to know what impact COVID will have on the drive-thru long-term. A couple of places have banned drive-thrus, and I wonder if those bans will stay in place.

[00:05:22.550] LN: Yeah, there's really no way to know what sort of impact in the long-term COVID will have on the drive-thru. In the past, a few places have banned them. San Luis Obispo is thought to be the first one, in 1982. Two dozen Canadian cities now have full or partial bans on drive-thrus, and Minneapolis just instituted one recently over concerns of litter, vehicle emissions, and pedestrian safety. Who knows if those will stand up in a post-COVID landscape? Even before the coronavirus, there was a lot of pushback on these bans. The industry, of course, and then other groups like disability advocates who say that drive-thrus — and not just at fast food places but at banks and pharmacies too — are essential to people who have trouble getting in and out of cars. Others have said that it pits upper-class residents against lower-income folks relying on fast food because it's quick, convenient, and cheap, especially if they work multiple jobs or have long commutes. Some planners are calling for a more nuanced approach. It doesn't have to be so black and white; there can be some gray area. And there's definitely opportunity to balance the negative impacts of fast food with the access that they do provide. But that can depend on how much a company like McDonald's wants to be in your community. For example, in places with a lot of foot traffic, chains are willing to leave out drive-thrus or eliminate parking to fit into a walkable neighborhood. We see that a lot in places like Chicago, but also on college campuses and in historic districts. There's just so much on the table that could impact the future of fast food. Technology is going to play a huge role, of course, as with literally every single thing else in our lives. We might start to see restaurants that cater exclusively to online delivery platforms. Those are called dark or ghost kitchens, and they could totally eliminate the need for a retail storefront in some cases. That could prove to be the biggest paradigm shift to hit the industry as it enters its second century, especially now post-COVID.

[00:07:12.500] MH: One interesting thing I found in the story was the fact that fast-food restaurants have traditionally acted as third places in a lot of communities because they have such a low barrier to access. They have public bathrooms, there's air conditioning, Wi-Fi in some of them. So they offer like a safe place to gather for a whole lot of people. I mean, I know my great uncle in Washington, D.C., that was his hangout spot with all of his, all of his buddies. So it'll be interesting to see how the role of fast-food restaurants as third places shifts in light of COVID-19.

[00:07:50.340] MS: Well, in particular, some, some states recently have said they're going to open up restaurants and — for dine-in, but they have these social distancing requirements to keep people far enough apart within the restaurant. I wonder how it's going to be enforced in a fast food setting. It'll be, it'll be interesting to see how that's managed.

[00:08:12.520] MH: Yeah, and what, will there be time limits? Because, you know, if you're going into use a third space like that in that way, you know, you tend to hang out there a little longer than it takes to just eat a meal.

[00:08:26.440] LN: Definitely. As with everything right now, I think there's a lot of uncertainty. So I'll leave you with a quote from Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams, that I think kind of sums up where we are right now: "Fast-food restaurants embody a lot of troubling aspects of American culture, but in a weird way, they provide a remedy for a few of them, too."

[00:08:44.910] MS: Hm.

[00:08:45.060] MH: Wow. That does sum it up quite well.

[00:08:48.580] MS: Another story in the April issue is very much in flux. It has been before the pandemic started, but that's definitely the case now. The cover story looks at what's next for e-commerce. The story's called "Primed for Deliveries," and the author, Lisa Nisenson, who is a planner herself, talks about the trends and technologies that are occurring in that field and really what they mean in terms of the big changes they're bringing for land use and infrastructure planning. Nisenson covers a lot of ground in the story. She talks about pilot projects with autonomous vehicles and delivery bots, the issues of managing curbside congestion as, you know, delivery vehicles are using the same spaces as pedestrians and parking cars and bikes and all that. She also talks about drone deliveries, which have some really interesting applications that she gets in-depth about in the story. And then, of course, she talks about some of the safety issues and the equity issues that are inherent in e-commerce. We spoke with Lisa in mid-March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ratcheting up Americans' use of e-commerce. We talked about that as well as how some of the emerging vehicle technologies, particularly drones, could be repurposed to help in the fight against COVID-19. One of the things that Lisa mentioned was this idea that some of these delivery bots, these autonomous delivery bots, that are used to deliver food or supplies could be repurposed, even if it's just using them for one thing in the morning and then something else in the evening, to deliver food in the morning and then in the evening they could be deployed to clean and sanitize transit vehicles or some other activity that would be better done by a robot than a human employee who we wouldn't want to endanger. When Lisa and I talked, she had a bit of advice for planners who are wading into this new regulatory environment when it comes to e-commerce and particularly autonomous vehicles.

[00:10:59.800] Lisa Nisenson: Most of these are going to be regulated by permits, so it's wise to check with your Office of General Counsel to come up with permits that are time limited or that are associated with an emergency declaration so there are some bounds on it that you don't regret later. And the other thing is, if you do these, make sure to collect the data so that you can go back and sort of compare before and after.

[00:11:28.000] MS: I really encourage you to listen to the whole interview. There will be a link to that talk with Lisa Nisenson on the page for this Cover to Cover episode. There's just so much to cover in this area of e-commerce, and the story goes into some depth about various impacts that these shifting trends will have on planning and the built environment. One of the, one of the things she talks about is traffic modeling and how much that will have to change considering that trip generation and use categories are undergoing a great deal of change. There's also this idea of where these delivery bots, these aerial or on-the-ground autonomous vehicles are going to go. And if, if in the air, then there's concerns of safety and noise and planners needing to regulate that airspace — planners and others. If they're ground-mounted vehicles, then planners will have to be involved in whether they go on the sidewalk or in the street or in bike lanes — just so, there are so many questions that need to be explored. But again, there's lots of interesting opportunities too, so this will definitely be something that we'll keep a close eye on.

[00:12:42.190] MH: Another feature story this month is on coding and how planners are using it, one, to make sense of the vast amount of data that's out there. And two, to build custom applications and visualizations that are helping them solve all kinds of planning challenges. Author Jake Blumgart talked to developers and planners in Boston, New York City, and Chicago about some specific projects and applications. The story also discusses how planners can learn to code. Hint: it's not part of most formal graduate curriculums. In fact, a lot of the planners interviewed for the story said they picked it up on the job or, you know, DIYed it with online courses and resources. Actually, as a bonus, we give readers a rundown of the three most useful programming languages for planners to learn. So I don't know about you, but it sounds like a pretty good stay at home project.

[00:13:36.520] MS: Yeah, it does. Maybe I'll pick that up. That about wraps up our April issue of Planning magazine. Looking forward to May, we've got a special issue on APA's 2020 National Planning Awards, and you'll also see a special section related to some of the early impacts on planning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[00:13:57.740] MH: And a sneak preview for June, we're — we'll be dedicating our entire issue to planner's experiences in the current COVID-19 crisis, how they've responded in their own communities, and what's on their minds as they look to the future.

[00:14:13.560] MS: And another thing we've started recently is Planning "First Look," where you can get a first look at some of the coverage of COVID-19 from Planning magazine online before it comes out in the print edition.

[00:14:28.860] LN: Thanks for tuning in, everyone. Be sure to keep an eye out for that May issue. They'll be hitting mailboxes and inboxes soon. And keep up with those Planning "First Looks." You can find those in Interact, our weekly member newsletter. In the meantime, you can catch us on Twitter either at APA underscore planning [@apa_planning] or at Lindsay R. Nieman [@lindsayrnieman]. I'm there as well, you can have a chat with me. And use hashtag plan mag [#planmag]. Until next time.

[00:14:55.780] MS: Thanks, everybody.

[00:14:57.750] MH: Stay safe.


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