Chain Restaurants and Cars Go Together. Driving Ruins Local Flavor

City Observatory research shows that urban regions where residents drive less and rely more on other travel modes have more independent restaurants and more varied dining options. Bon appetit for walking, bicycling and public transit.

3 minute read

March 4, 2020, 5:00 AM PST

By Todd Litman


Fast Food

Nicholas Eckhart / Flickr

City Observatory recently used data compiled by Yelp to compute the market share of chains in the nation’s largest metro areas. Overall, about a quarter of all restaurants are part of a chain, but that fraction varies widely across metro areas. We think that a high market share of independent restaurants is likely a good indicator of a thriving and diverse food scene, and is a strong amenity for many metro areas.

We’re not sure what the driving factors are that contribute to the more robust health of independent restaurants relative to chains in some metros, but we had a hunch. Metro areas vary widely in their level of car dependence, indicated by the average number of miles driven per person per day. In the typical large metro area, that figure is about 25 miles per person per day, but is far lower in compact, transit-served metros, and noticeably higher in sprawling, car-dependent metros.

So we took U.S. DOT estimates of the number of miles driven per person per day in large metro areas and compared it with Yelp’s data on the market share of chain restaurants in those same metros.

The data show a strong positive relationship between miles driven and chain restaurant market share. Metros where people drive more have a higher fraction of chain restaurants. For example, New York, Portland, and New Orleans all have a very low share of chain restaurants (less than 20 percent), and also have very low rates of driving per capita. Places where people drive a lot (Atlanta, Charlotte and Orlando) tend to have very high proportions of chain restaurants (more than 30 percent).  Overall, each additional mile driven per day is associated with an 0.6 percentage point increase in the share of chain restaurants in a metropolitan area.

We can conjecture why this might be. If people travel more by car, then it may be more important for restaurants to be visible and accessible by car, whether located along highways or in strip malls. National brands and advertising may be relatively more important to gaining consumer awareness than they are in cities where people drive less. If people spend less time driving in cities because they are more compact, or more accessible by transit, biking and walking, that may provide more niches for smaller scale independent restaurants, compared to formula-driven chains. Often times traffic levels on streets and arterials are location factors for national chains: unless a site has so many thousands of cars passing per day, they won’t consider opening a restaurant. That kind of rationale may lead to more chain restaurants in places where people drive more.

This could also be more evidence for our Green Dividend: People who drive less spend less money on cars and gasoline, and have more money to spend on food, including supporting their local independent restaurants.

Regardless of the exact reasons, the strength of this finding is striking. It suggests that if you want to have more consumer choice and more independent entrepreneurship in your local restaurant scene, you want to have a less car-dependent transportation system. Our auto dependency may be on of the things fueling the banal sameness typically associated with chains.

Monday, March 2, 2020 in City Observatory

Three colorful, large beachfront homes, one khaki, one blue, and one yellow, with a small dune in front and flat sand in foreground.

Florida Homeowners 'Nope Out' of Beach Restoration Over Public Access

The U.S. Corps of Engineers and Redington Shores, Florida are at a standstill: The Corps won’t spend public money to restore private beaches, and homeowners are refusing to grant public access to the beaches behind their home in return for federal assistance.

June 7, 2024 - Grist

Multistory apartment building under construction.

New Tennessee Law Allows No-Cost Incentives for Affordable Housing

Local governments in the Volunteer State can now offer developers incentives like increased density, lower parking requirements, and priority permitting for affordable housing projects.

June 10, 2024 - Nooga Today

Pumping Gas

10 States Where the Gas Tax Is Highest

As the gap between gas tax revenue and transportation funding needs widen across the country, the funding mechanism is drawing increased scrutiny from both public officials and consumers.

June 9, 2024 - The Ascent

Concrete walkway with landscaping, decorative tiles, and picnic tables in a Los Angeles County park.

Wish Granted: Former Brownfield Transformed to New Park

Wishing Tree Park in West Carson, California officially opened last month, replacing a brownfield site with a much-needed green space for recreation and respite.

June 14 - Urbanize LA

"No right turn on red" and "Turning vehicles yield to pedestrians" sign.

The Tide is Turning on Right Turns on Red

The policy, which stems from the gas embargo of the 1970s, makes intersections more dangerous for pedestrians.

June 14 - NPR

Thick green forest on edge of lake in Louisville, Kentucky.

Louisville Begins Process to Clean Superfund Site

A public forest is home to dozens of barrels that have been leaking toxic materials for decades.

June 14 - Inside Climate News

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.