Sitting in the drive-thru at In-N-Out in Allen. photo by Jeff Mues.

Urban Design

Yelp Study Illustrates How Urban Sprawl Contributes to Bad Eating

No big surprises here: car-centric cities deliver on car-centric food choices

Over on Slate, Henry Grabar digs through a trove of Yelp user data in an effort to see what user ratings of restaurants say about food choices and culinary divides across the American landscape. What he finds is that the data confirms some arm chair observations about the relationship between quality urban design and quality eating in America.

One discovery is that people generally prefer mom-and-pop eateries to chain restaurants. Also, when it comes to fast food, the so-called “Pizza Belt” of the northeast has a greater concentration of mom-and-pop options, while the Sun Belt is chock-full of chain fast food joints. The conclusion: the age of cities and urban design has a real impact on how happy you are with your day-to-day dining options:

Some of these places [older cities] have older urban cores, which may be conducive to local ownership. Pedestrian traffic makes it easier for restaurants without brand-name iconography to pull in customers than it would be on a busy six-lane arterial. Small-time commercial landlords are more likely than Westfield to cut deals with local entrepreneurs.

Others—Los Angeles, Miami—had their big growth spurts decades ago, and independently owned restaurants have taken root despite relatively car-centric design.

The bottom of the list, meanwhile—the place where the chains dominate—is a who’s-who of the Sun Belt. These are metros where unmitigated sprawl is evolving in tandem with massive population growth: Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Nashville, Phoenix. Most of these cities have been experiencing double-digit population growth over the past couple decades. It stands to reason that a vibrant, locally run food culture could take time to catch up.

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