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Car Free Days: Buying groceries by bike turns a chore into fun

The good folks at Car Free Days—who have been writing about their adventures hauling their family around Seattle on a bike since 2007—have written a great post about one of my favorite seemingly mundane parts of life on two wheels: Grocery shopping by bike.

My first trip to the grocery store by bike was a magical, mind-opening experience. As I pulled up to my apartment, the milk crate zip-tied to my old mountain bike’s rear rack completely packed with grocery bags, every remaining fear about living life without my car disappeared.

I grew up outside St. Louis where a car was not only my ticket to freedom (or so I thought), but also the way I accomplished just about every life errand. I never knew any different. Though it seems almost silly to me now, giving up my car was scary because it was the only way I knew to do things like get to work, buy groceries and see friends.

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But that first trip to the grocery store changed everything. I hauled as many groceries as I could have wanted (unlike Anne and Tim, I have no kids), and it was easy. But even more than that, it was fun and I sort of wished I had gone to a grocery store further from home so I could have had a longer packed ride home. My car-owning days were numbered from that point on.

In fact, this is one of the reasons I like organizing Cranksgiving each year—it’s a radically simple demonstration of how something as mundane as grocery shopping can become a fun adventure on a bike.

Below is an excerpt from the Car Free Days post, which dives into the world-shaking effect the longtail bike has had on family grocery shopping and includes some tips for people trying it out for the first time.

From Car Free Days:

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 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.


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10 responses to “Car Free Days: Buying groceries by bike turns a chore into fun”

  1. AiliL

    I don’t grocery shop at my favorite store by bike in the winter as much as I’d like to. The giant hill I have to climb up on the way home, with a full load, is not “fun” in pouring down rain and 40 degrees. I can take an alternate route but it doubles my time. The bike rack isn’t so convenient or of good design either.

    What I do instead is walk it (doesn’t take much longer than biking the long way round) or make several smaller trips to a decent store less close to home right on my route home in the evenings and use good, covered bike parking!

    My shopping by bike increases dramatically when the weather is better and there’s more light.

  2. Doug

    I work at a grocery store, and my CETMA rack has hauled many a load of groceries home.

    I also recently built a trailer for myself — see it in use on the Seattle by Bike Flickr group. . I used the frame of a discarded Burley kid trailer and less than $30 of hardware. The result is much more practical than a cargo bike, in my opinion. It’s cheaper, easier to store, and can be fit onto any bike in the household, all while hauling a comparable load (if i wanted I could nest a second box on top of the first). Which is not to say I wouldn’t buy a cargo bike if I had $3000 lying around!

    1. Bob

      I second the burly trailer. I like being able to carry large loads and then detach it and have a normal bike again. They can be had for very little money if you keep your eyes on CL and you can load a case of beer and two huge bags of groceries as easily as a car trunk. Doug — where did you acquire that black box? I bough a cheesy one from Fred Meyer but it doesn’t fit as well as yours.

      1. Doug

        It was $13 at Home Depot. The label states a 700lb. Load rating, so very sturdy.

  3. sean

    My family’s converted Chariot (once the kids outgrew it) was our “gateway” cargo trailer. Now we have a bikesatwork trailer which can haul considerably more groceries.. full size keg..whathaveyou. I agree with bob, it’s nice to be able to haul a lot but have a regular bike at the end of the day for things like buses, light rail, Amtrak, etc that can’t deal with cargo bikes. Come say hi sometime when you see me at hales or PCC!

  4. Tom Payne

    The best grocery shopping by bike in my area is Melrose Market. I take my bike right through the door to the counter at Rain Shadow Meats. If you have more shopping to do there is a generous bike rack outside the Market.

  5. Once you get a cargo bike you’ll never go back to the trailer…mine has not been used for five years.


  6. Russ R

    My wife used to bike for our groceries over the last 5-6 years when we lived in a Portland suburb, but since we moved up to Mukilteo last year, she’s only done it once or twice. The roadways are unkempt, too fast and too unfriendly.
    That said, she keeps talking about trying it again… and I keep thinking maybe I should hide the Burley trailer’s clevis hardware!

  7. K

    When I lived in Greenwood I often cycled the Interurban Trail to the Aurora Village Costco. It was 13 miles r/t and mostly flat and underused (with the ride back a slight downhill grade making it even easier). Not only was this a healthier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly way of stocking up on basics, but it also saved me money because I was limited in how much I could haul back home, not having a cargo bike or trailer. The only downside was that I couldn’t fill my (infrequently used) car up with cheap Costco gas.

  8. Grogenaut

    Another tip for newbs. Don’t use a cart at all. Put it all in your backpack / panniers while shopping. If you’re in a less crowded grocery, I just walk the bike through as a shopping cart. It’s about the same size. Don’t try it at a crowded trader joes though. Never had a problem with a QFC or Freddys when I pulled up to the checkout and started unloading my backpack onto the checkout belt only to put it all back in. They don’t seem too worried about theft from 30 somthing bikers.

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