Why we won’t all be walking to the grocery store

A goal of urbanists is the creation of denser, more walkable urban environments that reduce automobile dependence, allowing people to walk to destinations such as the grocery store. Developing more walkable neighborhoods is an admirable goal. But I believe there are some good reasons that not everyone will be walking to the grocery store. Here I tell three stories from my personal experience that suggest why.

“Old urbanism”

When I was in grade school in the 1950s, we lived near the edge of a very small city in Wisconsin. Most of the houses in our neighborhood had been built in the early twentieth century. The houses and the neighborhood looked exactly like what the new urbanists are trying to recreate, right down to the front porches on many of the houses. And we had a corner grocery store, two blocks away.

My friends and I would go to that store to buy candy and ice cream whenever we had the money. (So much for walkable neighborhoods reducing obesity!) My mother never shopped there. Instead, she drove across town to the new A&P supermarket on the other side of the city, about a mile-and-a-half away. This store had a selection of groceries, especially meat and produce, far superior to any other store in town. And the town and its rural hinterland could only support one supermarket, so that necessarily was beyond walking distance for the majority of people.

Urban Whole Foods

Some may object that my experience in a small city in Wisconsin is not relevant to urban issues. So the next story involves an environment that is indisputably urban.

My daughter went to school in Boston for two years, living right across the Charles River from Cambridge. My wife and I flew to Boston several times to visit my daughter and her husband. The walkable setting was great. We didn’t have to rent a car. We stayed in a hotel near Harvard Square, walked over to my daughter’s apartment, and walked or took the “T” to do things.

One time, we decided to have dinner at her apartment rather than eating out. The four of us walked across the Charles, over to a Whole Foods in Cambridge to shop for dinner. At this point, it seems as if I am contradicting the idea that we all won’t be walking to the grocery store. Except that the Whole Foods had a large parking lot in front, filled with cars. And it was clear that a majority of the shoppers in the store had come by car.


Before proceeding with the final story, I need to clarify one thing from the last story, that will be relevant going forward. How was I able to say that a majority of the shoppers had come by car? Nearly all of the shoppers were either lone individuals or two people shopping together. (We were unusual being a group of four.) And they were pushing grocery carts filled with far more food than would be practical for one or two people to carry home walking.

For many years, I have been the one in the family doing the grocery shopping. I go once a week, trying to get everything we need for the week. (Sometimes we may need to make a mid-week stop, but not that often.) I will shop at a couple of grocery stores. I will also do any other shopping such as making a stop at Home Depot or wherever, and I will often do other errands such as stopping at the post office or the dry cleaners.

By combining trips, I am minimizing my driving and the environmental impact, especially since this involves only one cold start, which is the most polluting. But the real reason I am doing this is efficiency. I’m trying to save time by getting everything done at once.

Even though I am now only shopping for two, when I get home it still takes a number of trips out to the garage to bring everything in. That includes food for a week, including a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, a large bottle of orange juice, to mention just a few of the bulkier items. And it inevitably includes some household items, varying from week to week, from toilet paper to a jug of laundry detergent. And often some beverages such as beer or wine. No way this could be carried home walking in a single trip.

About now, some readers are thinking, “Wait. People managed walking to get groceries just fine before the automobile.” Of course. But that required multiple trips per week, often even daily for a family of any size. And that required more time spent shopping. And the time to do that was available when the woman in the household was expected to stay home and devote all her time to domestic responsibilities. Needless to say, the situation now is (fortunately) very different.

Not walking to the grocery store does not necessarily imply the continued current level of automobile use to buy groceries. Back in the 1950s in that small city in Wisconsin, the milk man and the bread man both made regular deliveries to our house. (Using “man” is simply being descriptive of the practice at the time.) Most delivery has disappeared, as increasing labor costs have made it more reasonable for most of us to substitute our own effort to acquire the foods rather than paying for delivery.

It is very possible that the increased efficiencies associated with online ordering and more sophisticated delivery systems may make grocery delivery more practical and common again. Of course I am thinking Amazon. Food delivery raises some issues when made to households where no one is likely to be at home during the day to receive the items. Provisions have to be made to hold some foods in specific temperature ranges. And larger volumes of such shipments left at people’s doors on a regular basis may cause increased security problems. But these are problems that can be dealt with. Then we may not only not all be walking to the grocery store, we may not even be going to the grocery store. And we may not need grocery stores as we know them–or at least not as many. Of course, if that were the case, fewer stores mean they will be spaced more widely and will be within walking distance of fewer people.


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