Photo by Bruce Bottomley on Flickr.

To expats from Western Europe, one of the most visible and convenient displays of American capitalism is the array of services available every day of every week, late into the evening, and in select cases, absolutely whenever one’s heart fancies (like a pair of tube socks from a Super Wal-Mart at three in the morning).

Indeed, many other western nations sharply regulate business hours on a national level. Most stores must to close by a set time, such as six or seven in the evening, with no Sunday shopping. European lawmakers justify this in two ways. First, they argue that no employee should be forced (or, perhaps, allowed) to work at “undesirable” hours. And second, they say that smaller mom-and-pop stores can’t afford to stay open late or on weekends; permitting superstores to do so would put those independent haberdashers and bodegas out of business.

America generally knows no such boundaries, and so we have at our overnight disposal, variously, 10 pm treadmill runs at the gym, 2 am iPods at Apple on 5th Avenue, and 4 am Caramellos at the corner 7-Eleven.

A casual walk down a commercial street in virtually any local neighborhood will reveal numerous fast food restaurants seemingly open “late-nite” or “24-hours”.  But on closer inspection, in virtually every case outside of DC’s French Quarter, Adams Morgan, only the drive-thrus serve late night patrons, and then only those in motorized vehicles (sorry cyclists).

For whatever reason, whether it’s a desire to keep the dining rooms tidy or to protect cashiers from those would-be lawbreakers who are seemingly more dangerous on foot than in a car, late-night food seekers are forced to get behind the wheel, even if they live directly adjacent to such a restaurant.

Without going into the community merits (or lack thereof) of the availability of the 3 am Chalupa, sampling such a tantalizing offering requires residents to drive, rather than walk. That’s often when they’re in their least effective, and even possibly intoxicated, states, posing considerable risk to their and others’ lives.

I propose we require parity in the treatment of pedestrians and drivers, where such service would not serve as an unreasonable burden on the business. I suggested such to an Arlington County Supervisor, who found the concept novel and worth an investigation.

Unfortunately, in Virginia at least, except for liquor laws, most localities may regulate operating hours only through zoning. As a result, once an establishment has opened for business, the municipality can’t impose any new operating-hour regulation. The business is “grandfathered” into its use under the original zoning regulations, even if they are later amended. It might be easier in Washington or Maryland.

Arlington changed their zoning laws in 1998 to prohibit new drive-thrus, except by a “special exception” at the discretion of the governing body. In the future, if any new establishment wanted to open a drive-thru, the negotiation over the necessary permission would let the County to include conditions of pedestrian parity for approval.

Until then, I guess I’ll have to take a taxi 200 feet for my late-night fix. Or not.

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Joey Katzen is an entrepreneur and attorney who previously lived in Arlington, Virginia.  A native of the Commonwealth, he hopes our public and private sectors can work together to continue transforming each of our neighborhoods into attractive places we can be proud of.