Is it possible to do your supermarket shopping using a bicycle? Supermarkets in Scotland tend to be visited mainly by people using cars. The entire concept- filling a trolley with bulk purchases, the location of the shop and the large car park- is based on car ownership. Supermarkets do provide cycle racks and people do use bicycles for their shopping. I have been doing supermarket shopping for 2 adults and a child using my bicycle and this blog shares my thoughts about the experience.
How I transport shopping on a bicycle
I have two rear panniers on my bike and a backpack and this is sufficient to carry what I buy in the supermarket. It does not have the same capacity as a car which means I don't do a weekly shop, but visit the shop once every 2 or 3 days. Personally, this works out well because with a weekly shop you really need a big fridge and I have a small one. I also find that some of the fresher items do not last that well if you do a weekly shop. And it means more frequent exercise for me if I am doing it once every couple of days instead of once a week. The reduced capacity of my bike helps to control my spending and forces me to only get what I need and not succumb to temptation!
How I get to the supermarket
This is the main thing I wanted to write about in this blog. Each time that I do a supermarket trip by bicycle it always makes me think about how urban planning has made us so dependent on cars for short journeys.
I live in Colinton in Edinburgh and my nearest supermarket, Tesco, is a 9 minute cycle ride . That's really not far, so this should be a journey that anybody with a bicycle should be able to do. Right?
The problem is that there is no cycling infrastructure, no separated bike lanes and no painted bike lanes. It means that a person using a bike has to travel on some busy roads and be confident cycling in traffic. Part of the route is through some quiet roads in a housing estate where there is no traffic. However, to get to the quiet section you have to go on a busier road first. And this is why whenever I arrive at the supermarket I am the only one using the cycle racks or there is sometimes one or two other bikes there, but never more than that. This Tesco is hemmed in by roads that see a significant volume of traffic, probably a similar situation to many supermarkets in urban areas.
For most people the prospect of cycling on these busy roads to get their shopping is frightening, so they will use a car. There will be people who would like to go to this supermarket by bike, but if they do not feel safe they are not going to do it.
Do you need a car to get a pint of milk?
Here is another observation about this situation. Walking to this supermarket takes 25 minutes, so if someone just needs one or two things, like a pint of milk, they probably are not going to walk. We already know that not many people use a bike to get to this supermarket, which means that there are lots and lots of short car journeys being taken to reach it. It's not the fault of the people using the cars, urban planning has left them with no choice. It's not practical to walk 25 minutes to the supermarket each time you need something and cycling, if you don't feel safe on the road, is not an option. Okay, there are small convenience shops that you can walk to for things like milk, but not every location has one within reasonable walking distance and they don't stock everything that you need, so the only alternative is to travel to the supermarket.
What about public transport? There is a bus that covers this route to Tesco and it takes about 9 minutes, so the same as the bike. However, it is a 30 minute service so you are going to have to plan out your shopping trip to make sure it starts and finishes for when the bus comes. For people who do not own a car this is what they do when they visit the supermarket, but for people who own a car they may not want the inconvenience of waiting for a bus, planning their supermarket trip to the bus timetable, and having to carry bags of shopping on and off the bus.
There is another supermarket very close to where I live. Aldi, on Oxgangs Road, is 12 minutes by bike and 6 minutes by car. Again, 12 minutes is such a short time to be on a bicycle, so this trip should be a normal, everyday thing. However, like the Tesco route, the Aldi route requires you to be confident cycling on a bike next to vehicle traffic. The most direct way to reach Aldi is on the B701 which has no painted cycle lanes and no segregated cycle lanes. I come off the B701 at Oxgangs Farm Drive and head onto Oxgangs Farm Avenue as these roads have virtually no traffic, but there is no way to completely avoid busy roads when travelling to this supermarket.
Aldi has 4 bicycle racks and when I visit I am usually the only person using them. I have seen no more than one other bicycle parked there. There must be other people with bicycles who would cycle to Aldi if they felt safe on the roads.
We know that cycling and walking are good for health and the government wants us to do more of it. We know that driving, particularly for frequent short journeys that could be done by walking or cycling, is not good for the environment. Why, then, should it be so challenging to cycle for 9 to 12 minutes to a supermarket? The absence of segregated cycling lanes means that for the vast majority of people the journey to the supermarket will continue to be done by car. It should be normal to cycle 9 to 12 minutes to pick up shopping, not extraordinary, but the design of our urban areas has made it unusual to see a person using a bicycle to visit a supermarket.
Something has to change if we want society to move away from dependency on the private car for short, everyday journeys. If we really want to tackle health and climate issues then creating an urban environment where people feel safe to cycle for these short distance shopping trips is a good place to start.
This great video from Cycling UK explains the benefits to society of cycling lanes:
How about you? Do you cycle to the supermarket? Would you like to cycle to the supermarket? Tell me about your experiences and thoughts in the comments.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.