Post #431: Is the Chick-fil-A “gathering space” a sham?

Posted on October 26, 2019

In the diagram of the front of the Chick-fil-A-car-wash above, with Maple Avenue at the top, the drive-through window for the Chick-fil-A exits at the right side of the building (nearest Nutley), where the blue rectangle is.

In the original design, drive-through users would have then driven down the front of the building to return to the access road that runs past McDonalds.   I.e., they would have taken a left, using the brick “plaza” as an extension of the drive-through-lane.  Functionally, that brick “plaza” was just a driveway connecting the drive-through exit to the access road.

The Town changed that, requiring that the drive-through lane exit right-turn-only, directly onto Maple.  In theory, then, you can’t get back to the access road, if you go through the Chick-fil-A drive-through.

I have now seen several people comment on how fundamentally goofy this traffic flow is.  Upon inspection, it’s unlike any other fast-food drive through that I’ve ever seen.  It’s practically designed to result in a traffic jam.

Let me walk you through it, and give you my best guess as to what’s actually going to happen. To cut to the chase, my guess is, people are going to drive across the brick plaza anyway.   It’s set up to allow it (physically), and it will be vastly easier.  And as a result, that brick “gathering space” will be nothing of the sort.  It’ll just be the exit of the drive-through lane.  Exactly as was envisioned in the original plans.

The diagram above, Maple Avenue is a the top,  and the exit from the drive-through is at the right.

First, let me be clear that the brick area in front of the Chick-fil-A is, in fact, designed and constructed to be driven on.  That’s the truck loading area for the store.  Presumably, the brick and underlayment were designed to handle the weight of the delivery trucks.  And the curbs were designed to be driven over.

The red rectangle represents a car that is picking up food at the the drive-through window.  On a busy day, in the best of circumstances, that person will have been in line about 15 minutes.*

*  The plans show space enough to queue 26 cars in the line behind that.  Chick-fil-A claims a top speed of about 100 cars/hour in its drive through

Now, I have to add a caveat here:  Unlike a normal drive-through, where the transactions are handled at one or two windows, Chick-fil-A will send staff out to serve the cars, take money, and deliver food, as the cars wait in line.  So, in theory, you may not, in fact, have to stop literally at that window to get food.  But if this were any other drive-through, that’s where the transaction would take place.

The blue rectangle blue shows that there is room for just one car to queue up to get onto Maple, after passing the drive-through window.  At this point, at least in theory, that person has no choice but to turn right onto Maple.  This is the part that strikes most people as … odd, to say the least.  The lack of queuing space, after the fast-food delivery window, means that when traffic is backed up past that driveway, the drive-through line stops.  And when traffic is heavy but moving, that drive-through line stops.  I don’t think I have ever seen a fast-food drive-through with this configuration.  (And, again, Chick-fil-A did not plan on this.  This was imposed on them after-the-fact by the Town.)

The green rectangle represents that the 5′-6′ tall transformers that block the view of the sidewalk, for the person turning onto Maple (Post #424).  If you’re sitting in the blue rectangle, trying to turn, you won’t be able to see people coming up the sidewalk.  In hindsight, it’s almost as if the architects didn’t really expect that exit to be used.  Or maybe even wanted it to be difficult to use.  In any case, they went ahead and blocked the view of the sidewalk, from the exit lane.

The black rectangles highlight the term “mountable curb”.  The curbs at both ends of the brick “gathering space” are NOT designed to keep cars off.  To the contrary, they are “mountable”, that is, they are designed so that you can drive over them.  They have to be, because that space is the truck delivery area for the building.

The pink rectangle shows protective/lighting bollards that separate the outdoor seating from the rest of the “gathering space”.  It’s almost as if they expected cars to drive past that area.  But that probably also goes along with this being the truck delivery area.

OK, now imagine you’re the driver in the red rectangle.  It’s Saturday afternoon,  you’ve been fighting traffic all day.  You drove up here from Oakton, and you’ve now been sitting in line for 15 minutes.  You pick up your food and move to the position of the blue rectangle.  The light at Maple and Nutley is red, and cars are backed up well past the driveway you’re sitting in.  Oh, and the person behind you has already picked up an order and is waiting for you to get out of the way.

What do you do?

Well, you could obey the no-left-turn sign, wait for the light to turn at Maple and Nutley, hope somebody will let you into the lane as you turn right on Maple, push your way across both lanes of traffic so that you can get into the left-turn lane at Nutley, wait for the light to change, then do your U-turn and get back to Oakton.

Or, you could take a left down the front of the building and be on your way.

Seriously, in Northern Virginia?  Of course people will take the left.

I’ll make a bet.  Give it a few weeks.  At that point, I bet that if it’s backed up on a Saturday afternoon and you don’t take the left, the person behind you will start honking the horn to “encourage” you to take the left.

But wait, isn’t there a no-left-turn sign there?  Sure there is.  On private property.  My understanding is that nothing short of reckless driving or DUI is enforceable on private property.  (I could be wrong about that.)  So as I understand it, that no-left-turn sign, located on private property, is a suggestion from Chick-fil-A, not something that can be enforced by Town police.

Summary:  There’s space for exactly one car to queue up after leaving the Chick-fil-A drive through window.  In theory, that car has no option but to turn right onto Maple.

If the driver obeys the signs and turns right, then several things happen.  First, drive-through line will come to a halt every time that one car is unable to enter Maple, either from heavy moving traffic or from traffic that is backed up past that driveway.   Second, the driver has to make that turn despite having a 5′ tall transformer sitting direct between the driveway and the sidewalk.  Third, that driver likely faces several delays — in getting onto Maple, in waiting at the Maple/Nutley light, and so on.  Finally, if the driver is from Oakton and points west, that requires a U-turn at the Maple/Nutley light to get going in the right direction.

Or the driver could just ignore the (private) no-left-turn sign, drive down the front of the building (which was designed and built to be driven on), and be on their way.  If that becomes the norm, you can’t even pretend that the brick area in front of that establishment is any sort of “gathering space”.  At least not on a busy Saturday afternoon.

Perhaps we may gather there on Sundays.