Groceries by Bike: Turn a Chore into Fun

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Carfreedays and Shopping: the Journey to Bikes

Tim and I didn’t always grocery shop by bike.

Before the summer of 2007, other than an occasional walk to the store, we bought and transported groceries exclusively in cars. At the time we owned a bike trailer and we could have used that to grocery shop. But dragging it out of the basement or garage and hooking it up to the bike just to go to the store? Nah, too much trouble; the car was easier. Panniers were the same,  I had plenty of those lying around. But I was a busy mom and shopped for a family of 4, I could barely fit a days worth of groceries in two panniers, let alone groceries for a week.

August 2007, enter two Xtracycles. Those bikes changed everything.

Xtracycles at South Lake Union Park

Freaky Unicorn, life-changing-bikes for sure.

Post-Xtracycle purchase, fetching groceries-by-bike became one of my favorite activities. Sometimes Tim and I argued over who’s turn it was to go to the store. A two-mile ride through the neighborhood to clear my head? A little bit of exercise? A chance to stop and chat with neighbors? Yes!

Hey, grocery shopping can be fun!

Eben Weiss aka Bike Snob NYC, describes this sensation in his book,  The Enlightened Cyclist. In the chapter titled, The Alchemy of the Mundane he talks about using bikes for transportation. Bikes turn mundane and tedious tasks into joy. Instead of dreading those daily tasks or “getting crap done” in a car, use a practical bike and look forward to them.

Back in 2008 (when I used to blog more) I talked about a similar feeling. SAHMness can be soooo mundane. We take care of kids, we clean houses, we keep our families fed. We deal with a lot of crap. Even if you’re not a SAHM, I’m sure you’d agree that many mundane tasks go along with life in general.

But bikes make some of those mundane tasks more fun!

Shopping by bike wasn’t easy at first.

2007 Trader Joes HaulIn fact, some painful memories of our inaugural Xtracycle grocery shopping expeditions are still very fresh.

  • Awkwardly loaded bikes that sometimes tipped over
  • Shopping in tandem and holding Tim’s bike for what seemed like hours while he achieved “the perfect pack”
  • Standing in front of Trader Joe’s scratching my head and  trying to get it all to fit
  • Observing people sneaking glances while avoiding eye contact as we took forever to pack our bikes near the store entrance/exit

Even with all of those hiccups, I wasn’t about to go back to shopping by car. Remember, I was having fun! We blogged about shopping quite a bit in the early days. It was so new and exciting, and we wanted to talk about it as much as possible.

The Not So Ancient History of Grocery Stores & Shopping & Cars

Ford Model T (?)

Ford Model T by born 1945 on Flickr

How did we, as a society, get here? Cars haven’t been around that long. Maybe 115 years? How did people get groceries before automobiles were mass-produced?

Grocery shopping didn’t always require a car.

La Cantina Tavern and Sparks Grocery, 1956

La Cantina Tavern and Sparks Grocery by Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr

Less than a century ago, Americans mostly shopped at small specialty stores and corner groceries. Our little house in NE Seattle was built in 1920. At that time, our neighborhood had 2 corner stores within a 5 block radius of our house. I’d bet neighbors in the day shopped by foot. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they shopped by bicycle.

But that all changed when Clarence Saunders opened a Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store on September 9, 1916, in Memphis, TN.  The American grocery shopping experience was forever changed. Each decade since 1917 has brought bigger and bigger and huger and farther away (from where anyone lives) stores.

As stores got bigger and farther away and owning cars became mainstream, it was no longer as easy to get groceries by bike or on foot. People were required to drive to the supermarket because they were just too far away and inconveniently located to go by foot anymore.

Thanks for that, Clarence.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. Gimme a break!

Because stores are big (and bigger is better, right?) and far away, we all think we have to drive everywhere for everything. We’re also pressed for time. Our lives are more and more complicated and busy.  We’re stressed and tired.

Quite frankly, all of us could use a break. Some of us are tired of driving short distances (1, 2, 3 miles) in cars. And many of us are looking for simpler ways to transport people and stuff.

The good news: now we have choices.

Thanks to Ross and the good folks at Xtracycle for inventing and bringing the modern longtail to America in the 1990s.

Cargo bikes change everything.

Summer Reader Panda

If you’re still reading, by now there’s a good chance you either do, want to,  or know someone who could benefit from a grocery break.

If so, read on.

Grocery shopping by bike. Give it a try!

All right, you’re in. So where do you start?

It’s so much easier in 2012 than it was in 2005 when a self-described adventure journalist who writes for Outside and Slate took on a 2 week “experiment” of living without a car. Naturally when Bill decided to try this experiment, he started out on his sport bike in his shiny racer bike clothes and shoes.

It had a skinny little seat that all but required me to wear padded cycling pants when I rode. The handlebars were set forward and low, so a stretchy top was also a must—with a long tail, to avoid showing the cyclist’s equivalent of plumber’s crack. And it had special “clipless” pedals, which required me to wear special stiff-soled shoes with metal cleats on the bottom. Great for riding, not so much for walking

Today information about dressing in normal clothes and carrying stuff and people on bikes is everywhere. “grocery shopping by bike” returns 4,240,000  Google results. There are millions of photos, videos, stories and people offering advice about how to carry stuff on bikes.

Bill went right back to driving his car as soon as the two-week experiment was over. Well that didn’t work so well, did it? Perhaps Bill never understood the Alchemy of the Mundane, and was only motivated to ride because it saved him money. (Trying to save money is not a good enough reason to ride. As soon as you no longer need to save money, it’s easy to go back to your old car driving ways).

You have a better chance of sticking with bikes if you choose a bike because it makes you happy. If bikes make you happy, why would you decide to go back to cars and misery?

Some practical tips!

If you want to give riding a bike a try, I’ll leave you with a few tips and hope that others will add to them in the comments.

  1. Get a practical bike. It doesn’t have to be new or expensive. And it doesn’t have to be a “cargo” bike when you’re starting out. But it should be comfortable to ride in regular clothes, have flat pedals (no special shoes required) and have at minimum a rack, fenders and a way to carry stuff (panniers or basket). A kickstand helps too.
  2. If you just want to jump in and go big, at least practice loading and balancing your bike at home with groceries you already have in your house. Load up some grocery bags, secure them to your bike (see #1) and go for a spin around the block.
  3. If you have kids and plan to carry them on your bike, leave them at home for your first trip to the grocery store. You’ll thank each other. I promise.
  4. Oh and one more thing. When you’re ready to set out on your first real grocery shopping trip, don’t buy too much! Stuff just looks smaller in the cart. You want to be able to haul it home yourself.

If you’re a grocery hauling veteran or expert, what advice do you have to offer? Please leave a tip in the comments. I bet you have great stories and experiences that can make the transition easier for new bike shoppers!

 – Anne

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36 responses to “Groceries by Bike: Turn a Chore into Fun

  1. Xtracycles rock,I love mine too! :D

    The DC

  2. One other thought, route plays a big difference too. We’ve got the choice of two grocery stores, one is 1.5 miles little elevation change but on a major road that people treat like a freeway in spite of the 25mph limit. I routinely get shouted at & stuff thrown at me, etc on this route. I wouldn’t dream of riding with my kids this way. The other is 2+ miles with a hill coming home, but on residential streets and the last bit has a bike lane. The first one is a nicer store but terrifying errand, but the second is a pretty fun jaunt with or without children.

    • Excellent point! I will always choose the store with the most pleasant route, especially when I’m riding with kids. The journey is sometimes more important than the destination.

  3. I, too, love the Xtracycle, but in the years before I owned one I still did all my shopping by bike. (I parked my last car, oh, around 2003, and haven’t looked back.) As you say, things look smaller in the cart than when you have to pack them on the bike. But there seems to be a mystic rule – If you have to get it home on your bike, it will fit on your bike.
    Sometimes that means taking things out of boxes (like cereal) so they pack down smaller. Sometimes it means getting creative, like using the pannier strap to lash things on top of the rack, off the side, or on your back. I can’t count the number of hours I’ve stood outside Trader Joes trying to figure out where everything will go. (I’ve gotten better over time – both in remembering to bring panniers, or Xtracycle, and in estimating what will fit.)
    My only extra bit of advice is, pack an old innertube or 2. Ones that won’t work in a tire anymore. Light, stretchy, lacking the eye-gouging potential of a bungie cord, these are the greatest – and cheapest – things ever invented to help secure stuff to your steed. Oh, and maybe pack a reusable shopping bag, just in case the panniers aren’t big enough.

    • Thanks for all of the tips! Especially the many uses of an old innertube.

      You’re right, even if you look like one of the Clampetts, you can usually get everything on the bike with the right accessories!

  4. Me and mine got our family biking life started via craigslist for about $200. It was a too-small-for-me old-ish mtn bike and a burley kid trailer. It was a jalopy of a set-up but we fell in love with family biking. Errands became adventures. Our health improved. We discovered new routes and destinations. Our day-to-day world got geographically smaller, but our connection and familiarity to that world grew. Impromptu stops at the park became a regular thing. I forget the exact date but April 2009 is our family biking birthday. Almost 4 years later, we have 2 cargo bikes in the garage, ride them daily, and love almost every minute of it.

    As far as tips for the bike curious…
    Make sure crush-ables (bread, chips, eggs, bananas) are on top.

    Layers are your friend. Biking has brought me to appreciate vests.

    Horns and bells… loud and obnoxious is king. Same for lights.

    Explore new routes and don’t be afraid to stop and enjoy public space… It’s so easy to stop just about anywhere on a bike.

    When hauling kids, let/make then walk/run for a block or 2 if they’re rambunctious. “Don’t make me pull this bike over!”

    Full Disclosure… CarFreeDaysTim was the first person to let me ride his cargo bike. I was hooked and knew that family biking was the answer. We bought our first cargo bike a few months later.

    • Thanks, Andy. I love all of these!

      Especially making kids get off and run! I did that a lot when the kids were young, especially when they started bickering on the bike. I always made sure the kids were wearing proper running shoes before we left the house, just in case they needed to take a run. : )

  5. I know when my grandmothers went shopping they didn’t take their groceries home–they were delivered (at one point by horse and cart, and there are photos of cargo trike and hand truck deliveries too). Here in San Francisco it’s still common for stores to offer delivery; leave your groceries there after paying and they’ll show up later, on your schedule.

    I am always surprised when people ask us about grocery shopping because it’s now something we do en route to somewhere else. We rarely make special trips just to shop. That’s probably my biggest tip for making the transition easier–a cargo bike always has capacity, so stop along the way to other destinations. Once every few months we go shopping for bulk foods with the kids, though. The Bullitt can swallow any load, but a bike trailer or car share would serve if we didn’t have it.

    • Thanks, Dorie! I love the image of the horse and cart!

      Yes, we make stops en-route as well. When we’re out and about, If we’re anywhere near a store we habitually ask the other-cargo-bike-riding-partner, “do we need anything”?

  6. Pingback: Car Free Days: Buying groceries by bike turns a chore into fun | Seattle Bike Blog

  7. I understand the love of long-bikes set up to carry loads. The bike is always ready for laod carrying, no set up required, so if you just happen to see that ideal Christmas tree on you way home from work, well …

    But I still think flatbed trailers are better for weekly grocery shopping. Yes, you have to get them down and unfold them and connect the hitch, but they are so easy to pack. With panniers, even the big xtracycle ones, you have to balance the load and be careful not to crush stuff under heavy stuff. With a flatbed it is no harder than putting groceries into the trunk of a car.

    Of course, a long-tail handles like a regular bike even fully loaded, while pulling a heavy trailer behind a bike can have issues.

    • Thanks, Peter. The beauty of cargo and bikes: there’s something for everyone.

      You’re right about the cargo capacity of trailers. They are easy to load with big plastic bins etc. for hauling LOTS of stuff.

      I convinced Tim to sell our 2 trailers after we got the Xtracycles. He regretted that decision when he realized he needed one to haul awkward items (his SUP, tools, compressor etc)

      So he bought a worn-out Burly trailer on CL last year, stripped off the moldy cover and turned it into a flat-bed trailer. IMG_0025

  8. Yeah, the bike is just an excuse to see things en route to life.

    Did you just buy a home? Go down to Home Despot and grab that big Ryobi tool set with bag. Trust me, you’ll need it.

    Rip out the base of the bag. Carefully. Why this bag? You’ll see in a moment…
    Put it in your sideloader. Perfect fit. Utilizes vertical space nicely and the wire frame clamps around your contents securely, out of sight.

    Now go down to your local Swedish Big Blue store and get the medium big 59 cent tote. Get at least two. See how they fold perfectly flat down to nothing? Sweet. Let them live on the bike. Take them into the store, either carry one and fill up or use a cart. Load up your big ass bike. Two full ones fit perfectly into one side. Use the tool bag for various things. You’ll figure it out.

    Say you’re maxed out. Tie two more Ikea bags together, sling over the top towards the front. Gravity will take care of the rest. C’mon, use your imagination. Now use your legs.

    If you’re gonna rock your bike, rock it hard that is, get those Xtracycle Cinch Straps. Forget bungees.

    Alright I got some more but this is long enough. Oh yeah I forgot: get a Kelty Cooler Binto and some re-freezable ice if you have more life to live before going home. Thrown your dairy in there, then a fine Touraine or an IPA or six for those “other” moments, which you might be heading to…

    • Hi Jim, Great tips!

      Thanks for the detailed description of the DIY bag. Will you post a photo of it installed? Sounds like a great solution.

  9. Hi Anne, my cam is on the fritz but imagine it folding flat, the same length as the sideloader, with the ability to open its jaws. Kind of like those old fashioned toiletry kit. Taking the base out isn’t absolutely necessary but it reduces weight and bulk.

  10. Thanks for the post!

    This especially hit home because of my recent experience of the opposite. I have always done my grocery shopping either on bike or on foot. Either I lived super close to a store, or I didn’t own a car. But yesterday, I was lazy, it was foggy, etc, so I borrowed his car to go to the store. It usually takes me about 10 min by bike to get there. Well, because I could 1. no longer take my shortcuts, 2. couldn’t bypass traffic, and 3. had to get gas, my trip took me close to 15 minutes. And then the parking! Oh the horror.

    The very best thing this trip made me realize is how true your thought process is. Grocery shopping is SO much better on a bike.

  11. You’ll love the professional engineer quote that made me blog about grocery shopping by bike (http://bikestylespokane.com/2011/11/05/grocery-run-impossible/): “People also cannot accomplish essential tasks such as grocery shopping via bikes.” — D.J. Hughes, professional engineer from Delaware

  12. I’ve gotten pretty good at estimating how much will fit in the front bag on my Brompton, but every now and again my eyes are bigger than my luggage, and I have to unfold the very compact REI duffel bag that I carry with me everywhere. Mine is the older, lighter, less durable version of the stuff travel duffel, http://www.rei.com/product/809162/rei-stuff-travel-duffel. The newer version, which can turn into a backpack, will be my post-Christmas present to myself because mine, which is only a duffel, sometimes swings around to the front as I lean a little forward on my bike. Inconvenient, yes, but also potentially dangerous.

    Bike trailers needn’t be a bother to drag out and hook up to the bike. After owning (and never using) a folding bike trailer that was a pain in the neck to fold and unfold, I got a Radical Design Cyclone. The 16″ wheels have quick-release hubs that you can pop on or off in seconds (faster than I can fold or unfold the Brompton), and the disassembled package will fit just about anywhere–behind the couch, in the coat closet by the front door, next to wherever you park your bike. The maximum load is 40 kg (88 lbs), which I sorely tested my first time out on a hilly, cross-town trip with 11 six-packs of beer (it was Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, and I was giving a bunch away). My lowest gear got a lot more use than usual, but the trailer didn’t whimper in the least.

    • Great tips, Scott!

      The Cyclone looks pretty nice: great design, compact, easily stored. But man, it’s expensive!

      However everyone has different needs , threshold for what things are worth and space constraints. If you needed a compact, foldable trailer to store in a small space, the Cyclone looks like it would be handy.

      • Agreed, Anne. I’d never have spent that kind of money on a trailer while I still had a car, but against the several thousand dollars annually that the car once drained from my wallet, the $600 or so that the Cyclone ran me for a one-time purchase seemed like a bargain.

        As an aside, the Brompton folding bike made going car-free possible, at least for me. It folds quickly and compactly, and I can take it inside the bus and into the passenger car on Amtrak. I can also fly with it without paying the bicycle premium. I could buy two or more Bromptons a year, every year, for the amount of money that I used to spend on a car.

        • By the way, I did get that REI duffel/backpack, and it proved to be a disappointment. It has d-rings for when you want to use it as a duffel, but it doesn’t come with a duffel strap. As a backpack, it’s a total bust. The backpack straps are awkwardly positioned, so it fits badly, and the contents of the bag shift around once you have it on to make it even more uncomfortable. Also, the pouch/pocket that it folds into is extremely tight, so it’s a pain in the neck to stash and unstash.

  13. The Burley Travoy is another trailer that is very easy to fold up when you don’t need it, and extremely easy to attach, plus it is very good for taking into the store. I’ve tried folding/unfolding it in the store and even as a neophyte found it quick. It’s also good if you need to use a Bus or other vehicle for part of your route as it is perfect to pull after you like a pedestrian rolling shopping device.

    Waiting to see if Santa put one in my stocking ….

    However, it is mostly vertical when in use, which requires careful loading so not to squish things on a bumpy ride. The flat bed described above greatly simplifies the loading process.

    But I have a more general grocery question. How do you prevent the ride from damaging items, no matter how carefully packed? Any of you ever put a soft fruit like raspberries in, say, a handlebar bag (which offers some suspension since it is hanging) and then 10 miles later found it had turned to jam?

    • The Burley Travoy looks like a nice option. It’s a similar design to a traditional shopping trolley/rolling cart. Did you get one in your stocking? Are they stable?

      I don’t have any raspberry carrying tips. We double wrap eggs in cloth bags, that’s about the most fragile item we carry on a regular basis. Anyone else have raspberry carrying tips?

  14. Great post!

    I do take issue with the idea that saving money is not a great reason to ride. There is a great blog that shows that biking vs driving saves a family somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000 in 10 years. That sounds like a pretty damn good reason to ride to me.

    Read about it here:

    http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/tag/bicycles/

    • Hi Bob, thanks for your thoughts!

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not refuting any money saving benefits of riding bikes instead of driving cars. There is no question bikes save money, lots of it.

      Saving money is an excellent side benefit of riding bikes. But is saving money (or losing weight, reducing stress, reducing fossil fuels) enough of a motivator for the average person to choose bikes over cars on a regular basis?

      We all have nagging shoulds in our life….I should lose weight, I should get more exercise, I should save money, I should stop drinking, smoking, eating junk food. I should work less, I should spend more time with my family…..

      I think saving money along with losing weight, reducing stress, reducing fossil fuels fall into the category of those we think we SHOULD do. And not necessarily things we all WANT to do.

      People need a positive reason that will motivate them to hop on the bike instead of getting into a warm dry car every day. They have to want to ride for it to become habit.

      I think that reason is joy.

      Knowing I will experience a positive feeling from riding bikes is a way bigger motivator for me than riding because I’m trying to rid myself of the many negative consequences of driving cars.

      Thoughts? What motivates you to ride?

      As an aside, I’m reading Daniel Pink’s Drive right now. A great read that applies to many areas in life (daily choices, parenting, business, work). And definitely choosing to ride bikes!

  15. Awesome tips! Thanks for sharing……

  16. Almost all bikes that one can buy in any retail store or bike shop is only made to transport you the passenger who may weigh up to 230 lbs plus 40 lbs. of cargo weight. Tipping over this 40 lbs cargo limit is always bound to happen far more than not. And at this point such bikes are as useless as the tits on a boar hog. Add any more weight to these bikes and you ARE going to have problems almost immediately. These bikes will slow you down to an absolute crawl, as nearly all parts begin to grind down. To illustrate, breaking of such weight will wear down you break pads or rotors really quick. The chain will pull apart and the sprocket teeth with wear off like butter. The thin wiring used on the breaks and gear shifters will snap at any given moment. And, you thought a flat tire was going to be a royal pain in the ass. Just wait until you have any one of these other breakdowns out in the middle of nowhere. The bearings in all of your bike components will wear thin too. The wheels and the sprocket housing will wear out fast and furiously. The best thing to do really is to buy a heavy-duty bike to begin with. A heavy-duty utility bike is truly meant for carrying at least a 1000 lbs or more easily and without bogging down at all. Moreover, you will hardly have to worry yourself to death about cargo weight distribution —- just put that weight anywhere on the bike you want to and go. Sure, it will cost more money for a heavy-duty practical bicycle than it does for most retail bikes. But, the practical bike will last you nearly forever. You may be able to past it down to another generation for yet another few thousands miles. The whole time one might only need to change the tires at best. Oh wait, not if you have flat free tires. Practical bikes — mean just that — from input, processing, and output, the bike is not likely to let you down for years to come. Just ask a European postmaster; they will tell you the same thing. Any other type of retail bicycle is only for looks; shits and giggles really; and they are only for those people who also have cars and who will never, never, never, most likely take giving up a motor vehicle or owning a real practical bicycle seriously at all; and in this case then, Extracycle is going to be just fine for them. But for you and me – the car-free citizen – we deserve far better – right? Right! So for us, here is a link to some photographs of heavy duty postal bikes, among many other types to choose from: http://www.google.com/search?q=postal+bike&hl=en&client=safari&tbo=u&rls=en&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ei=Y1j4UOyRIMv-2QW0y4D4CQ&ved=0CDAQsAQ&biw=1167&bih=629

    Submitted by the blogger for Car-Free Memphis – David Fullerton.

  17. Pingback: Why We Ride: Thoughts on Motivation | Car Free Days

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  19. Coming late to this, and from The Netherlands… I’ve got stores around the corner because I live in central Rotterdam, but I also own a micro bakery and we haul large 25kg bags of flour from two mills, both are about 10 km away. For that we use an old bakfiets, which is a pain to cycle, but has fantastic load carrying ability, but also a Burley Travoy. The Travoy is one of the best things I ever bought for cargo cycling. It has good load carrying ability, you can weal it into the store, use it as a shopping trolley, it folds…I even used it to move my studio from a town 15 km away to where it now is. Deliveries to customers and stores we do with a mix of the Travoy and the bakfiets: I can deliver about 30 loaves in one go: the travoy will hold 3 bread crates. Good to see cargo cycling is taking off! Keep at it!

    • Thanks sharing your cargo hauling story, Alex!

      We’re saving our pennies to take our kids to the Netherlands some day. Witnessing that level of bike goodness in person is an unforgettable and eye opening experience!

      Another endorsement for the Travoy! Sounds like a versatile cargo option.

  20. Well if you make it to our side of the Atlantic, be sure to let me know. We’re part of a vibrant urban agriculture community in Rotterdam: guests are always welcome!

    • Thank you! We just might take you up on that offer. Summer 2013 is already booked. Perhaps we’ll skip over in 2014!

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