Grocery Shopping by Bike

Someone recently asked me how you shop for groceries on a bike. It struck me as a question lots of people have probably never thought about, so why not write something about it?

I think the first thing to keep in mind is that you’re probably going to have to shop for groceries more than once a week. To me, that’s a feature not a bug, as I mostly try to eat fresh produce, some of which doesn’t keep all that well for a week anyway. Shopping more frequently means I only have to plan meals for a few days at a time. It’s also not that much of a burden, if you shop closer to home, which is easier if you live closer to stuff.

It was probably an easier change for me as well because I actually transitioned to bike shopping from shopping on foot. When we lived downtown, there was a grocery store two blocks away and a mass market retailer between the office and home. It was no big deal to make a stop and grab what I needed.

Shopping by bike is similar in concept, as long as you have some cargo capacity. Rule number one is you don’t want to try to get around with shopping bags hanging from your handle bars. You’re going to need a place to put stuff. A basket out front. A cargo rack and panniers in the back. Or go really crazy and get yourself a cargo bike. Get the right tool for the job.

Groceries

There’s room for more than two bags

The main challenge to shopping without a car is buying stuff that’s heavy or bulky. For most of that stuff, we’ve signed up with your friendly (or is it?) online retailer to bring it every month, or however often makes sense. Toilet paper, facial tissues, baby wipes, and dog food have all moved off my shopping list and into regular subscriptions. The quantity of cardboard involved does make me worried about how green that choice actually is, but it’s convenient and it removes a barrier to not driving so I go with it.

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I’ve been known to bike to Home Depot too.

But also I do drive for groceries. Awhile ago we were out of diapers, Amazon wasn’t cooperating, and it was raining, so I drove to the Richfield Target (only a couple of miles from our house). Since I was there, I picked up some groceries too. But Target isn’t my preferred grocery spot (although it’s not bad), so I also stopped in at the Seward Coop on Sunday as part of one of my weekend morning rides to get some specialty stuff. Then I had to pop over SuperValu on the walk back from the playground because I had forgotten milk. Three grocery stops in two days, only one by bike.

I’ve also been know to make a larger weekend shopping trip in the car, especially if I’m in a hurry or would rather shop at a store that’s a bit farther away. I make excuses about the relative level of quality of the closer stores, but I’ve got to try to make myself use the cargo bike instead. Nobody’s perfect.

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26 Responses to Grocery Shopping by Bike

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke August 23, 2018 at 9:22 am #

    Trip chaining is a thing I do on my bike. Once you make the commitment to bike a few miles, it’s convenient to stop at bunch of different places because parking and negotiating all that is so easy on a bike. I feel like in a car, you tend to do all your shopping at one megastore (e.g. Target) because it’s more difficult to negotiate.

    Lesson here is that bicycles tend to be better for small businesses. Cars are better for big box chains.

    • Rosa August 23, 2018 at 10:58 pm #

      the main problem with chaining is that you can’t use the bike like a rolling lockbox, the way you can a car. So the liquor store has to be the last stop, not the first, and sometimes I find myself hauling a whole laptop bag around with me while I shop because I’m headed to or from a place I was working on the computer.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke August 24, 2018 at 10:52 am #

        That is a great point, Rosa. I often schlep and lug all sorts of crap into the coffee shop because there is nowhere to leave it.

      • Monte Castleman August 24, 2018 at 6:17 pm #

        This is one of a number of reasons why I think the rental model of self-driving cars will not come to pass. It’s so convenient to have your car as a locker which wouldn’t be possible if the car you were in goes to service someone else while you’re at work, or in the store.

        • Rosa August 25, 2018 at 1:53 pm #

          the question is if the convenience is worst the cost and other hassles – when parking gets too hard, the storage locker is less worth it, and when you are looking at the actual cost of a car or a second car as something you might not actually have to pay, the conveniences have to be really, really convenient to justify it. Especially since for so many household car repairs are the most common “unexpected emergency” cost they run into that undermines financial stability.

  2. Julie Kosbab August 23, 2018 at 9:48 am #

    I biked to Costco. It was kinda trippy.

    • Rosa August 23, 2018 at 10:54 pm #

      the St Louis Park Costco is surprisingly bikeable. And the bike (mostly) prevents really unwise very large purchases.

  3. Matt L August 23, 2018 at 10:06 am #

    I’m still working on putting together (and taking apart, and putting together again) my bike with substantially more cargo capacity, but for years all I had was a road bike with no racks or anything. I just threw on a backpack, and I could pick up groceries for a few days and a 6-pack, too. I’ve biked around with a baguette poking out of my backpack many times. As long as you live close to stuff, as Adam says, it’s not a big deal. A backpack with a chest strap also helps with the heavy loads.

    That said, my first time chucking groceries in a milk crate strapped to my cargo rack was soooo nice. But a backpack isn’t a terrible option.

  4. Lia August 23, 2018 at 10:10 am #

    I do a semi-weekly car run for heavy/bulky stuff, then 1-2 trips per week on the bike for veggies, meats, etc. I have a rack+panniers set up and can carry quite a lot.

    One tip I’d add in terms of food safety: it helps to have one of those insulated bags to keep meats cool. Sometimes I forget to bring mine, so then if it’s hot out I’ll buy frozen berries or veggies and enclose it with the meat in a plastic bag. Of course our lovely Minnesota weather means this isn’t always a concern.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller August 23, 2018 at 10:42 am #

      I should have included the frozen food trick. Great suggestion!

  5. Serafina Scheel
    Serafina August 23, 2018 at 11:02 am #

    I shop for my family of four mainly by bicycle. It’s gotten much easier with the new Fresh Thyme that opened up directly on my commute. I have a basket, panniers, and cargo rack and can easily carry up to three grocery bags. I stop a couple of times a week.

    I still go to Aldi by car maybe once a month or so to stock up on baking supplies and dairy, but that’s generally combined with other errands.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller August 23, 2018 at 11:43 am #

      Back before the grocery store opened two blocks from my downtown place, I used to primarily drive across the river for groceries on the weekend. Adding more grocery stores throughout the city (a thing that’s been happening) is absolutely key to being able to do more stuff without a car.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell August 23, 2018 at 7:24 pm #

        Oops, wrong one above and no edit (agree with it too though).

        IIRC, northern European countries try to have a grocery, pharmacy, general store and 3 pubs within 1 km (0.6 miles) of 60% of the population, 2km of 70% and 3km of 80%.

        • Serafina Scheel
          Serafina August 24, 2018 at 11:08 am #

          My family lived in Muenster, Germany, in 2016 and we had so much choice in terms of groceries, bakeries, drug stores all within a kilometer. We really didn’t miss having a car, even when I had to trek out to the outskirts to get a tank refill for the gas grill.

  6. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell August 23, 2018 at 11:31 am #

    Well done and balanced article. Even Dutch friends use cars occasionally for grocery and other trips.

    Good cargo capacity for bikes seems much more difficult to obtain from US bike shops that view bicycles as recreation than those elsewhere. Almost any bike shop in Europe or Asia will start a sale offering a city bike that at a minimum includes a sturdy rear rack as well as eyelets and studs for attaching other bits. More: http://localmile.org/city-bikes/

    Most of our shopping by bicycle is picking up a few things on our way to or from eating. My wife’s bike (Workcycles Gr8) always has her front frame mounted basket and it takes only a minute for me to stick my front or rear crate on mine if I think I’ll need it. For larger shopping runs or taking stuff to/from UPS store we also have a bakfiets. Ours is a bakfiets.NL which is great but if I bought another it’d be a Workcycles Kr8 (http://www.workcycles.com/home-products/child-transport-bicycles). The Kr8 is a bit more stable than the Bakfiets.NL which is a bit more stable than LarryVsHarry.

  7. Davis Parker August 23, 2018 at 12:20 pm #

    One of the challenges I find with a hectic life involving young children is the need to plan ahead to have your grocery-carrying gear. I’ve started just always sticking a backpack in one of my pannier bags and have found this to be be working pretty well–no need to always wear the backpack, but when extra space is needed then I have both the backpack and the space in the pannier.

    I also second the biking to Costco & Home Depot. Probably about 1/3 of our Costco trips are by bike. I find the SLP Costco fairly accessible, and nice to not have to deal with the parking lot craziness (you can slip in through the side access road). Usually bring the trailer for that one. There was the one time I got too much at Home Depot and my son had to ride home holding onto/perched on the back/side of the trailer… he thought it was very fun.

    • Rosa August 25, 2018 at 1:45 pm #

      my poor child, I got used to hauling LOTS of stuff when I had the kid trailer (one child, two-child trailer) and even then he’d end up with things in his lap, or bungee corded to the outside of the trailer. Before that I got by fine with a milk crate on the back of my bike, and normal sized panniers.

      It’s part of why I end up riding the cargo bike all the time, long after my kid hauling days have finished – I’m just used to being able to haul basically everything.

  8. Greg August 23, 2018 at 4:58 pm #

    Two banjo brothers grocery panniers and I’m good to go. I ride to Lunds (cheaper more selection) or the Seward coop (closer but a lot more expensive) one or two times a week…be sure to keep bananas and breads on the top or carry separately!

    • Jackie August 26, 2018 at 2:13 pm #

      Greg- I was going to jump in with the Banjo Brothers panniers- they are great for two bags fitting perfectly. They sit higher than most panniers- which is why I like them. My old panniers would put me out of balance and bang against the back of the bike. Two panniers, a bungie for the back small bike rack for something not too heavy- just fine.

      I do not drive or have a car- what I do every few months is tag along to a big grocery store with a friend or do a Menard’s run with a friend for cat litter- best price- and whatever bulky thing- laundry soap, furnace filters- I might need.

      And when I really need to use a car, I call LYFT.

  9. Mike Beck August 23, 2018 at 11:26 pm #

    I experimented with various cargo features for my bikes, but found that I often ride different ones, and sometimes take the bus. I settled in a giant Swiss Gear backpack. It has literally become my purse! It goes everywhere with me all the time. The small pocket at the top holds my various key cards and other work-related paraphernalia. My water bottle has its own side pocket. It permanently carries a phone charger so I’m never on low. I just grab it and go. Regardless of mode, I always have capacity for groceries. I also avoid hauling bulky items by careful planning. I live alone, so the $1.49 4-pack of toilet paper I can grab at the convenience store next door to my home is sufficient. I also know my friend’s Costco habits and tag along when necessary. He drives since he’s also hauling his three young children (who adore me!) And when push comes to shove, all I have to do is remind my son that I provided him with a car when he was in college, That guilt is perfect for the occasional Home Depot run.

  10. Ian R Buck August 25, 2018 at 9:07 am #

    I got one of those trailers you’re supposed to stick a couple of toddlers in for my grocery shopping/hauling needs. I’ve never encountered a shopping trip where I couldn’t fit everything in there.

  11. John Haide August 26, 2018 at 2:14 am #

    Nobody has mentioned the Burley Travois trailer. You can pop it off when you get to the store and use it as your shopping cart in the store. It holds 60lbs/two shopping bags and can be easily switched between several bikes with just the attachments for seat post or rack. It tows like there is nothing back there. Really works for me.

  12. James Frese August 27, 2018 at 3:51 pm #

    My record is $191 worth of groceries in our old kiddie trailer last winter. (We have 2 teenage boys involved in winter sports, so that was actually a smaller-than-average trip!) Sure it’s a little slower getting home, but I didn’t feel as guilty about buying Girl Scout cookies on my way out the store, either.

  13. Carol September 11, 2018 at 10:22 pm #

    Several years ago, I bought a burley bike trailer off of Craig’s list specifically for CSA pick ups, grocery shopping, and any other hauling. I took the seat out and had Home Depot cut a piece of pleiwood the exact size needed to cover the trailer floor so it would be sturdy for hauling heavy items such as a gallon of milk or a big winter squash! My husband and I use it for our weekly grocery shopping. We shop locally at the Coop for pretty much everything that we need. The trailer will hold 4 to 5 bags of groceries. It has worked out great!

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller September 12, 2018 at 9:54 am #

      Excellent! This weekend I put the cargo bike to a mini-challenge and found there was no problem getting three full bags of groceries, a diaper bag, and the kid home from the store. Still had room under the bench too had I needed it!

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