We’ve all had experience with the two-lane drive-thru setup at McDonalds.
(No, not all of us. Certainly not you. I know you don’t ever go to McDonalds. I don’t either.)
I remember back when there was just one lane, and one window. And then, they came out with the two window system, with the promise that it was better, stronger, faster. And it was.
And then, for a little while, there were three windows, because after all, if two is better than one, then three must be better than two. This experiment was relatively short lived, so much so that I cannot recall exactly what happened at each window. I think they took your money at the first one, and you got your food at the last one, but that middle window... random conversation with a teenage employee? (Yes, I could google it, but where’s the fun in that?)
Short lived, but still having required major remodeling efforts at each store that had it. Many still have that middle window, always closed, locked up, vacant, unloved. They sit on the side of the building, an architectural appendix, useless, waiting to burst...
But I digress. Two-Lane drive thrus...
The goal of each of these changes appears to be to move us through the thru more quickly and efficiently; to get us our food and back on the road before we really have an opportunity to think about what we’ve done. Two windows did this, and two windows remain. Three presumably did not, and so the third window is abandoned like a dirty shirt. And now two lanes are here, and they’ve been around for a little while, suggesting they are here to stay. This would suggest that the crack research team at Hamburger University has found the design to be effective. And maybe it is, from a statistical perspective.
But as you sit there on approach, waiting for your turn at the speaker, the two-lane drive-thru demonstrates its true reason for existence: As a litmus test for the average person’s ability to manage their vehicle in tight spaces.
Yes, each and every one of us has learned how to navigate successfully enough to line up the driver’s side window with the speaker and monitor. Check off that particular skill development as done and done. The great tragedy is in what happens next.
The person in front of you then completes his or her order, and of course pulls forward. And then you think "great! Now it’s my turn." And it should be, of course. But it’s not. Because when they pull forward, they only pull forward three feet, afraid of coming into contact with the vehicles in front of them. This leaves you in a position in which you can clearly see the speaker and monitor - maybe it’s lined up with your front bumper or, worse, with your front fender - but you are not close enough to hear it, or for your voice to be heard by the staticky worker on the other end.
Sometimes you are close enough to trip the sensor, and you can hear that disembodied voice speaking, welcoming you to the establishment, like a mirage in the desert, ever present, yet ever distant.
You are also close enough to see something that the driver of the Escalade in front of you cannot see over the massive expanse of unnecessary sheet metal that serves as a hood: they can easily pull forward another three feet.
Three feet! And you know that three feet is all you need, all you’ll ever need, to get up to that speaker, to relay the manifesto that is your value meal order, and get you on your way up to that window. You sit there and will them to pull up, to take that three feet. Mentally you offer them your mind’s eye, psychically providing the opportunity for them to see what you see, to see the huge chasm of space that remains between their front bumper and the car beyond. You become Elaine Benes on the subway, mentally pushing for events, events that will never occur.
And, to be fair and balanced, while an Escalade is a motor vehicle crime against humanity, this same sequence of events happens when the person in front of you is sitting in a Prius.
Often then the line will edge forward slightly, and you can see the opening for the car that impedes your path. Sadly, however, the etiquette on how to merge and who goes first remains, after all of this time, a thing left to chaos. The vehicle in front of you moves forward three inches, only to be cut off by the vehicle in front of them. You fill that gap, putting you closer, ever closer, and still not yet there.
Then there is a break, a shift in the traffic, Janie Escalade/Johnny Prius pulls forward, giving you your opening, your opportunity at that monitor and microphone, and you pull up to order. You hear those magic words "welcome to..." and you start to speak, rattling out your now heavily practiced order, only to realize that you are hearing the speaker on the other lane.
But then it finally happens and you have your order in, confident that all is now right with the world, your trial now complete. Until you realize that you do not have enough room to pull forward, and that it is now unclear whether the next turn belongs to you, or the person in the other lane. You are now the impediment for the poor souls trapped behind you. The great winter of your discontent is now past, but theirs is just beginning.
As I’ve said, I assume that this change must make the line more efficient and decrease the vital time between the taking of the order and it’s delivery; If you have worked in fast food you know that these statistics are of prime importance. Unfortunately, it seems to take absolutely no consideration for the subjective experience of the customer. It misses the fact that, while this process may be faster, the experience feels longer.
Previous changes to the system did not do this. Adding the second window to the original one window, one lane system meant that you were given steps along the way that made you feel like you were making progress. Originally there were just two steps:
- Place order and wait
- Get to window, pay, get food
Adding the second window gave you the opportunity to do something - paying - on the way to getting to your final prize. It made the process seem like it was underway, in motion, and that you were an active part of it. You may have actually sat in line just as long, but something interrupted the monotony and anticipation along the way. This is the same reason that the big name amusement parks have entertainment options all along the winding, twisting lines for the roller coasters - taking the monotony and anticipation out of waiting.
Instead, the two-lane drive thru adds anticipation where there wasn’t any before - before you have your order taken. It makes it seem longer because you are right there, but you cannot proceed. This may not factor in to the time between order and delivery, but it certainly factors in to the experience. Maddening.
I have no hope that it will change - it appears to be ubiquitous at this point, simply a part of the landscape, a thing to endure.
But not for you, of course. You don’t have this problem, because you never go to McDonalds.
And neither do I.