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.
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.
In 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
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!