How to: Get Groceries while car-free

I’m going to do a series on how to get things done while car-free. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I am going by my own experiences and what other car-free friends do to live and enjoy life while car-free. I’d love to hear your comments about how you get things done, or suggestions on what I should cover during this series. – Myra

One benefit of living in a large city like New York is the plethora of great places to eat. I have friends who haven’t bought groceries in years, because they eat out every day. While that might be good for many city dwellers, some of us with limited budgets or finiky tastes prefer to cook at home.

Getting groceries from the grocery store to your walk-up apartment can be, as my grandmother would say, “more than a notion.” It requires careful planning of how much you can reasonably carry and how long to you can make the groceries last before another visit to the store.

The first problem is easily solvable – you can either go to the grocery store several times a week and only get what you can reasonably carry home. This might mean taking an extra half hour to an hour out of your day 3 or 4 times a week. If you’re not fortunate enough to live within a few blocks of a supermarket, you’ll need to locate a market that sells the foods you like and take into consideration if anything will melt or be damaged on the subway, bus or bike home. Having resusable and insulated grocery totes are a must.

Making sure to get the highest quality meats and produce might mean a longer-distance trip, so biking or walking might not be feasible. Timing trips with the bus schedule in hand is often necessary. See if you can carpool with friends who drive or use a taxi service to get home if you want to buy everything at one time. Be creative!

Be sure to ask yourself – If I use a grocery cart, will I have to take my groceries out of it to get on the bus? How will I get the groceries upstairs once you get home? Can I carry 4 or 5 bags of groceries 10 blocks home? How many groceries will my bike’s basket hold? Can I fit my groceries into a tote bag? How much will a taxi cost? Do I have friends who have cars who can help me? Is Zipcar an option?

Speaking of grocery carts, most grocery stores will not let you take their carts home – and where would you store it, anyway? So, I’ve found metal grocery/shopping/utility carts (as shown in the photo to the right) at hardware and variety stores throughout the northeast. They range in price from $20-50. I prefer the more expensive ones because they tend to last longer and have warranties. It might be more difficult to find grocery/shopping carts in other places, but you can also order them online at stores like Amazon.com, which offer free shipping. These carts are foldable, or you can use them for alternative storage when you aren’t using them for groceries. I also use my cart when lugging my laundry to the laundromat!

An alternative to shopping in person is to try ordering your groceries online through an online store or brick and mortar store. I use FreshDirect in New York City, and used Peapod by Stop and Shop when living in New Jersey.  Both services deliver to your door between hours you specify. Your cold items will be cold and both stores offer items in bulk and homegoods like toilet paper and cleaning supplies. FreshDirect doesn’t have the breadth of options of canned goods that you might get at your local Pathmark or grocer, but their meats and produce are right on target. My neighborhood doesn’t have a butcher and the local stores (there are 3 within walking distance of my apartment) do not offer a wide variety of meats (I live in a food desert.). FreshDirect and Stop and Shop both employ butchers, so I can rest assured that I’m getting high-quality meats. For fresh produce, I visit one of the many produce markets in the neighborhood near my job daily the freshest produce. Transporting vegetables and fruit from work to home is a little tricky, but I’ve learned how to pack my food amongst my gym clothes or sweater to make sure everything arrives home safely!

Also, check with your local grocer and see if they offer deliveries. You’ll have to decide for yourself if the $5-10 delivery fee and/or minimum order is worth it to you. So, the next time you’re at your local grocery store, find out if they offer a delivery service. I’ve seen local grocery delivery work two ways – either you go to the store, buy what you need and go home and wait on the delivery, or you call the store with your order and they’ll deliver to your home. Either way, you won’t be stuck lugging your groceries up a few flights of stairs or several blocks home. Or, use a search engine to search for “grocery delivery” and your zip code. There are options such as NetGrocer and Amazon that deliver groceries nationwide. If you have the storage space, Amazon is a great place to buy dry good groceries like cereal in bulk. Publix grocery stores in the southeast is offering trial a grocery pick-up service at select locations. No word if you can use your bike for picking up, but I don’t see why not. Use their website to order your groceries online and schedule a 30 minute pickup window.

If you bike, getting groceries home is a bit easier. You can use your bike’s basket to put in groceries, plus you have pedal power to help you get home! I’ve seen some creative bike baskets and carts, including the one shown here. You can attach a bike trailer to the back of your bike (detachable, of course) or use regular baskets to store your groceries for the ride home. My sister’s setup includes a handlebar basket and a back basket. She can easily carry a week’s worth of groceries home using those two baskets and a messenger bag. If I were shopping for a family, I’d definitely buy a detachable cargo bike trailer. Check online retailers and your local bike shop for options!

What are your suggestions for getting groceries home? If  you live in an area with delivery, let us know your favorites. Or if you have tricks for how to minimize the stress of shopping while car-free, let us know in the comments!

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4 responses to “How to: Get Groceries while car-free

  1. Wow- lots of good suggestions for getting your groceries home sans car. I’ve been living in the city w/o a car for so long I’ve almost forgotten that the concept can be a little daunting for those folks that are used to driving to a big box grocery store and loading up the car. Now that I have a family it takes a little more planning, but we too use a bike trailer now and again. We have a child trailer that works very well as a cargo hauler. Also, we included stores within walkable/bike-able distances as one of the criteria when we were searching for our current residence. And ya know, you just made me think of an old photo from our family blog that I may have to re-post on my bike blog re: hauling groceries and kid home on the bike in the winter, in Chicago.

    One more tip – a bike rack with a bungee net has proven invaluable to me time and time again. You can leave it wrapped around the rack when not in use, and you wouldn’t believe the loads of stuff I have carried with that. Related – always have a couple of bungee cords in your bike bag. Sorry for the long comment!

    • Great ideas! I definitely think that it takes some planning, but shopping sans car is definitely do-able! I actually like getting my bulk items from FreshDirect (like cases of paper towels, bottled water (I know, bad girl!)) and then shopping at my greengrocers for produce.

  2. This is a really good post. I typically walk to my local supermarket (although plan to bike more often once my new baskets arrive).

    Recently I was thinking about ZipCar with regards to groceries. My local supermarket had a sale on Pepsi: buy 2 get 3 free! Essentially, that meant you got 5 cases for the price of 2 cases, or $25 of Pepsi for $10, a $15 savings. The problem, of course, is that no pedestrian or bicyclist can reasonably carry 5 cases of Pepsi home from the store, let alone anything else they might want to buy. But if ZipCar cost $8 per hour, and I borrowed one for an hour, I’d still come out $7 ahead. Not a bad deal.

    I’ve also discovered that ZipCar is significantly less expensive between midnight and 6am (for good reason). So if you’re a night-own and live near a 24-hour supermarket, you might be able to do a heavy shopping and spend very little on transporting groceries.

    • What a great idea! I haven’t signed up for ZipCar, yet, but I can definitely see the benefit! I like the idea of renting a ZipCar for a late night trip to the grocery store. I might have to try that!