I recently attended the first Strong Towns National Gathering which was held in Minneapolis where I live. For an organization focused heavily on city planning and policy, Strong Towns is perhaps uniquely concerned with what the average citizen can do to better their communities without being a planner, engineer, elected official, or working in any related field at all. With that spirit in mind, a challenge was issued during one of the presentations asking each of us to choose to walk to the grocery store at least once in order to experience a typical errand we all do frequently from that perspective.
With a willing group like those at Strong Towns, such an idea would not seem at all unreasonable. But in the broader American populace, walking to a grocery store might sound preposterous. There are huge variances in how far we live from the nearest grocery store, mostly, as one might expect, inversely related to density. This is very much a consequence of how we’ve built places during the suburban era, and I interpreted this challenge to be intentionally inconvenient for a lot of people. While you may be able to easily and quickly drive to get your groceries, not everyone else can and changing tastes mean others simply want the choice not to drive. Should you take it, this challenge will at least partially help tell you the extent to which your community has enabled such other choices.
At first I felt that for me to personally write about this experience would not be terribly informative. I live across the street from the nearest grocery store so I “take the challenge” several times a week. However, once I decided to make a trip to the store and take a few photos to see what I thought, I realized there were still some interesting insights to be had. Read on to see how my Strong Towns Citizens Challenge unfolded.
Preparing to head to the grocery store basically consists of grabbing a bag and dashing out the door. Though my building has elevators, I almost never take them going down. The stairwell is maybe ten steps out the door and drops me out in the back of the building. It’s slightly closer than the elevator would be, but I mostly do it for exercise and because backtracking triggers an utterly irrational annoyance response in my brain. I don’t understand why really, so I just avoid it. Whether I take the elevator or the stairs, I have to cut through the slightly odd but convenient passthrough area on the ground floor. Otherwise going through the main lobby and the true entrance to my building actually dumps me out on another street which is decidedly out of the way.
Here’s the first bit that might actually be interesting. I live in one of the oldest areas of my city, but it was never very residential until pretty recently. Like many cities that embraced urban renewal but now have re-densifying cores, we have an odd mix of great historic character, ugly surface parking and new apartments and condos. In the next photo I’m cutting through the back alley and then through a sliver of a surface lot to bisect my way to the corner. I hope my walk to the grocery store gets less convenient and longer if it means we can build something else here.
After cutting through the parking lot, I approach the major east-west thoroughfare in downtown, Washington Avenue. Fortunately, I do not have to cross it. There are certainly worse intersections throughout the city, but this is stroad design at work. The road is extremely wide, designed in many ways for high speed but has a frequent stoplights. This makes for a frustrating experience for drivers and often a confusing one as well. It feels like they should be able to get through here more quickly than they safely can. It’s mostly terrible for cyclists and peds, too, but some of it will be getting a bit better next year. I don’t really have to worry about that stuff right now. I just cross the quieter street and stick to the sidewalk for a block.
The pedestrian experience here is pretty pleasant considering the speed of traffic and noise of the cars alongside. The sidewalk is wide and although the trees are still young, they provide a good buffer. As you get closer to the entrance there are a number of picnic tables outside that are in nearly constant use in even mediocre weather. Local urbanists have debated the merits of this development on various grounds at length, but as a nearby resident I feel the positives outweigh the negatives. It’s certainly better to look at than it used to be.
As far as the travel portion of the trip, that’s it. But just for fun, I decided to time my return trip (at right). I hit the start button as soon as I set foot outside the front door of the store and stopped it as soon as I set foot back in my apartment. I made no out of-the-ordinary efforts to get home more quickly than I normally would, and I even took the stairs up six flights rather than using the elevator which would likely be slightly quicker. The only “break” I caught was not hitting the light to cross the street.
I consider myself fortunate to live so close to a grocery store, but it wasn’t by accident. It was a determining factor in the neighborhood we chose to live in. It wasn’t a requirement for it to be next door, but walking distance was critical. On our way back from the store a few weeks ago, my wife casually observed that we probably walk about the same distance that a lot of people walk to their cars at most grocery stores. It was a just barely an exaggeration, but it doesn’t feel like it in practice. The “extra” distance we walk is negligible and we enjoy it besides.
Despite being such a short trip, I was surprised by how much went through my brain during the walk. This is not exactly out of the ordinary for me. I walk almost everywhere, and I’m constantly thinking about urban form even when I don’t really want to be. Once you turn it on, it’s hard to turn off (ask my wife). As I wrap up this first in what I hope will be many Strong Towns Citizen Challenges, I wanted to share a number of casual observations and thoughts I had along the way.
- Rush hour traffic along my path was interesting. To the extent that congestion existed, it appeared almost entirely due to the accordion effect. There were no persistent backups due to volume. Here are two photos showing huge gaps in traffic along my path.
- If you were to ask the average driver whether traffic is bad at these intersections, I’d guess nearly 100% would say yes. Many would rank it among the worst stretches in the city I’d bet.
- If you look at the second of those photos, you’ll notice a large vacant lot across the street. While there is a theoretical condo proposal for the site, I wish this was still there instead. Boy this town lost some great buildings.
- Although it is our primary stop, we do not shop exclusively at this grocery store. We still visit the co-op to which we belong when in that neck of the woods and my wife will frequently grab a few select items we enjoy from Trader Joe’s along her commute. If TJ’s opens downtown as has long been rumored, that’ll change.
- It’s pretty incredible that as few as eight years ago there were zero grocery stores downtown and now there are four if you count the Lund’s just across the river and Target with its vastly expanded assortment.
- While we usually just carry what we need in bags, we have this grocery cart when we need more. It’s a titch short, but overall I’d highly recommend it.
- Anecdotally, it feels like we waste a lot less food than we did when we lived in a first-ring suburb even though we still only lived about a mile from a nice grocery store.
- Speaking of that grocery store, that would have made for a more interesting challenge. We probably walked to it 3-4 times in five years plus another handful of bike trips. It was not too far, but it was an utterly terrible walk along one of the stroadiest stroads that ever stroaded.
- It probably wasn’t that bad compared to what a lot of people deal with, but I’m spoiled and a bit of a snob on those lines. Sorry.