Transit and “Food Deserts”

The Sunday O has a feature article on “food deserts”, areas with poor access to grocery stores and particularly choice among grocery stores. It details the story of one family in the Cully neighborhood that makes a 1+ hour (each way) transit ride to a discount warehouse grocery 10 miles away.

I’m contrasting this with my experience in NW Portland where I have good walking, biking or transit access to a number of grocery stores including Food Front, Fred Meyer, Zupans and as of Friday, a 5 minute Streetcar ride to the new Safeway in the Pearl District (a welcome addition as it’s on the bike route I most commonly use to get home).

Should service planning for transit include grocery choice as an explicit goal?

29 Comments

29 Responses to Transit and “Food Deserts”

  1. Jason Barbour
    November 16, 2008 at 10:37 pm Link

    Another point that the article makes is that I’m sure most of the readers of this website can afford to shop at any grocery store, regardless of the price. The family in the article can’t. Heck, they’re trying to stretch food stamps as far as they can.

    I’m going to take a guess that the store that she can’t get to by bus is the Albertson’s at Prescott and Cully, more than half a mile away. Going there by bus would involve taking the 72 to Prescott and 82nd, then transferring to 71. (As anyone who’s ever tried to rely on 71 can tell you, you’re better off walking.)

    Probably one of the biggest challenges for planning transit (or anything, for that matter) around store locations is the locations can change at any time. Find an apartment next to the grocery store, and you run the risk of it changing hands (to someone who turns it into a more “upscale” establishment), or even closing, leaving people back at square one. I will say that TriMet did change the route of the 4-Fessenden to go near the new Safeway in St. Johns when it moved to a new location. That’s just one store, in just one neighborhood (my guess is even if a Safeway opened in their neighborhood, the family in the article couldn’t afford it, either, given how Safeway is remodeling its stores and trying to cater to a more upscale audience).

    Finally, the article represents just how important public transit is to the region (including the span of service we have here). Without it, more people than just the family featured would lose access to the basic necessities that many of us take for granted.

  2. John Russell
    November 16, 2008 at 11:59 pm Link

    While I agree with the point of the article, is the entire reason that it takes so long is that this woman can’t stand transfers? Neither can I, but according to Trimet, you could get from her place to the Winco on 122nd via a transfer to the 71. Or the one on 102nd with transfers to the 15, 33, 77, or even the Blue Line with a bit of walk across a big parking lot. All of these in no more than 30 minutes or so.

    Is there something that’s special about this particular WinCo other than the fact that it requires no transfers to get to it?

    Regardless of the transfer issue, this is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed.

  3. Jason Barbour
    November 17, 2008 at 9:43 am Link

    Is there something that’s special about this particular WinCo other than the fact that it requires no transfers to get to it?
    My guess is that’s it, she can get to it without transfers.
    The article and the pictures show her using a cart so she can carry all her groceries, and one of the pictures discusses how some drivers won’t lower the bus and it has to be carried on/off the bus. There’s also the concern about the cart breaking if its too heavy. So all of this would be times two if she were to transfer to the 71 (and 71 often have the high-floor 1400 and 2100-series buses). Not to mention that many of us who’ve used 71 know that sometimes it is extremely unreliable.

  4. al m
    November 17, 2008 at 10:19 am Link

    Grocery shopping on the bus is NOT A GOOD IDEA!
    Take the bus to get there and take a taxi to get home.

  5. Jeff F
    November 17, 2008 at 10:35 am Link

    A taxi? In Portland? Probably cost her a week’s worth of groceries.

  6. al m
    November 17, 2008 at 12:01 pm Link

    Jeff E,

    Depends how far the store is away.

    Ten bucks should cover it, no big deal compared with the hassle of trying to use the bus with a huge load of groceries!

  7. Dave
    November 17, 2008 at 5:50 pm Link

    I typically can do all my shopping (1 person, eat out for lunch daily) in 2 handfuls of grocery bags if I go once a week. If I had kids, I’d go more (or drive my car), but I can easily get a week’s worth of food for myself and take it home on the bus, more than a week’s worth if I take my backpack too. There’s no way I’d pay for a cab with how easy it is to do.

    I typically drive (indirectly, I drive by 2 FM’s and a Safeway getting home), but some days it’s nice not to need to if I’m not driving anywhere else for any reason.

    But, really, I’m supposed to get really sympathetic because she chose a place that is 25 minutes from a store? I’m about 20 minutes (on a bus) from any large supermarket except Food Front. With a transfer I can hit the Safeway in the Pearl also, but that’s probably closer to 25 or so with the transfer.

    The City of Portland is one of the easiest places I’ve been (especially compared to Mira Mesa in San Diego, where I lived car-free for a few months, or Tualatin, where I lived with a car for a few months) to get around by foot and transit.

    The real story would be trying to be car-free in parts of Tualatin, Hillsboro, or Vancouver. Some of the outer suburbs really have a lot to be desired. Much more than the Cully neighborhood, anyway.

  8. Jason McHuff
    November 17, 2008 at 7:02 pm Link

    Food Front, Fred Meyer, Zupans and as of Friday, a 5 minute Streetcar ride to the new Safeway

    BUT THOSE ARE NOT AFFORDABLE. My apologies, but that was kind of the point of the article. Going down 82nd, the family goes right past the Safeway at Burnside, a Food4Less at Powell, Wally World at Holgate (and there are people who buy a lot of their food there), Fred Meyer at Foster, and another Fred Meyer and Wal-Mart near Johnson Creek.

    the Albertson’s at Prescott and Cully

    Maybe sometime Cully will actually get sidewalks. If I lived over there, I would try to time it right and transfer to the 33 and go to the Gateway WinCo. I’ve heard (from someone who trekked to the Clackams WinCo all the way from the peninsula in NoPo) that that store has high prices, though I’m not sure its true.

    take a taxi to get home.

    I’ve read that idea in one of the car-free books I have. However, unless transit is really poor or you really buy a lot, I think it makes more sense to go more often and get smaller loads. Yes, trying to get lots of groceries on/off the bus can cause issues, but taxis do get expensive quickly.

    As for me, I haven’t done it recently, but with a big backpack and 1-2 plastic bags per hand, I’m able to hull ~$75 worth of groceries home from Beaverton to central Portland. Its an adventure, but besides the prices, one thing I like about WinCo is the selection. There’s stuff there that I can’t find at Freddy’s or Safeway.

    Overall, this isn’t like Madison, WI, where store closings and only-halfway-decent transit are causing real food-access problems.

  9. Nick theoldurbanist
    November 17, 2008 at 9:56 pm Link

    As a non-driver, supermarket access is a big issue with me. I want to live, at most, 1/2 mile (10 blocks) from a standard supermarket (e.g., Freddy’s, Safeway), and not ‘chic’ markets like Zupans, Food Front, or even New Seasons.

    So far in my 7 1/2 years living in Portland, I’ve been able to swing it, although it might take up to three months for me to find a new apartment, instead of three weeks.

    Portland has a LONG way to go before it can lay claim to being a true ‘carless’ city.

  10. Matthew
    November 17, 2008 at 11:07 pm Link

    If the 72 was a streetcar line, (and the other big bus lines were too,) the transfers wouldn’t be as bad. Level boarding with multiple doors would make getting her cart in and out a lot easier, where as even the best BRT systems still have boarding gaps big enough to require a ramp deployment for that thing…

  11. Bob R.
    November 17, 2008 at 11:38 pm Link

    According to an article I saw recently (which looks like it is transcribed from a press release), Eugene’s EmX system is going to participate in a test deployment of a bus guidance system which uses magnets embedded in the roadway to allow the bus to line up more closely with platforms, supposedly within one inch. The article is mainly about California, and I’ve not seen this yet from any other source, so I don’t know if it’s to be retrofitted into the current EmX line or if it will be tested on a future line.

    See:
    http://thepinetree.net/index.php?module=announce&ANN_user_op=view&ANN_id=9284

    According to an article from 2007 on a pro-BRT advocacy site, special curbs are used at wheel height to “guide” the EmX buses into place at stations, but drivers can still leave a gap that varies by several inches:

    http://www.gobrt.org/Eugene.html

  12. Matthew
    November 17, 2008 at 11:49 pm Link

    The magnets sound promising.

    But this picture, from your other link makes my point exactly:
    http://www.gobrt.org/EmX_loading_bike.JPG
    Those are probably 26 inch [diameter] tires on the bike, so it looks like the gap is around a foot.

  13. ambrown
    November 18, 2008 at 2:28 am Link

    The issue of food access is an issue of environmental justice. I’d like to see zoning codes that encourage the existence of smaller neighborhood grocery shops (with healthy food!) and more encouragement of affordable farmers markets in more neighborhoods around Portland. Everyone should have the ability to pick up a gallon of milk without a car or bus ride, and perhaps have the ability to get a weeks worth of groceries with only a bike ride.

  14. MRB
    November 18, 2008 at 8:08 am Link

    I can’t stand farmers markets or “healthy” grocery stores. It’s right out of the “Stuff White People Like” book. Give me a Fred Meyer’s or Safeway or QFC any day of the week!

  15. james
    November 18, 2008 at 8:13 am Link

    I don’t see how a smaller neighborhood grocery store would help, if even Fred Meyer is too expensive. Wouldn’t a small neighborhood store with healthy food be at least at expensive?

    In fact, the implied claim of the article is that the ONLY possible store at which poor people can shop is Winco. If that’s so, maybe the problem isn’t getting poor people to Winco, it’s raising people’s incomes to the point that a typical supermarket becomes an option.

  16. Trace Salmon
    November 18, 2008 at 10:59 am Link

    As a user of the 71, can anyone tell me why this line in particular is so erratic? I have waited over 45 minutes for a bus that was supposed to arrive in five. In the meantime, four busses have passed in the opposite direction.

  17. Matthew
    November 18, 2008 at 2:53 pm Link

    “In fact, the implied claim of the article is that the ONLY possible store at which poor people can shop is Winco.”

    Exactly. The problem this family has, (and many families, because food stamps is only $3/day/person, which just isn’t very much,) isn’t strictly food deserts, but Winco deserts.

    Farmers Markets are often cheaper than Winco, if you are buying certain things, at certain times of year. But you can’t buy everything you need for the week at a Farmers Market, (at least, not at prices that are cheaper than Winco,) so it doesn’t prevent the need for the Winco trip…

  18. Jeff F
    November 18, 2008 at 3:50 pm Link

    Isn’t Winco cheap because it’s non-union?

  19. Terry Parker
    November 18, 2008 at 4:37 pm Link

    First: It seems it would take less time to go from the Cully Neighborhood to the WinCo in Gateway on 102nd. The bus line on 82nd Avenue is a frequent service route with busses often bunched up like bananas. Max between 82nd and Gateway runs about every seven minutes. The Halsey bus between 82nd and gateway runs about every 20 minutes or less. .

    Second: It is not unusual at all to see shoppers at WinCo with one or more carts piled high with groceries. Nobody should have to schlep all that on transit. Instead having PDC subsidizing boutique and specialty grocery stores that cater to the elitists, Portland needs more low priced grocery stores like WinCo and WalMart close in to every neighborhood. It is far less costly, even when gas prices were high, for people who have a car to drive a couple of miles to a low priced grocer than pay the high prices in one’s own neighborhood. PDC should be finding ways to encourage more of the low priced grocers in neighborhoods that don’t already have them.

  20. Jason McHuff
    November 18, 2008 at 5:09 pm Link

    Isn’t Winco cheap because it’s non-union?

    WinCo is employee-owned. I’d say its cheap because of the volumes they do, they don’t bag your groceries, cashiers can have two orders going at once and in general be very productive…

  21. Joel H
    November 18, 2008 at 8:00 pm Link

    If the Oregonian map is correct, there IS a well stocked neighborhood Latino grocery about 3 blocks from Ms. Calderon. Tienda Oaxaquena or something along those lines. Obviously, they do not have everything that Winco carries, but I’ve shopped there — they have staples and their prices on most things are much lower than Albertson’s.

  22. Jason Barbour
    November 18, 2008 at 8:35 pm Link

    First, on transfers: an article I posted excerpts of in the open thread a few weeks ago (I think it was something like ‘TriMet Hopes You Will Ride, Not Park’), it mentioned that transfers are considered a psychological penalty because of needing to transfer to/from an additional transit vehicle. Another issue brought up that seems to be forgotten in our discussion is the cart she uses and has to lug on and off every time she gets on or off a bus. From the tone of the article, if the cart breaks, she’s out of luck.

    Another point of the article is the woman featured has to shop somewhere that accepts Oregon Trail cards (fancy way of saying “food stamps”). And she is still trying to stretch that allowance as far as she can.

    As a user of the 71, can anyone tell me why this line in particular is so erratic? I have waited over 45 minutes for a bus that was supposed to arrive in five.
    From what I’ve heard from various line 71 operators and others over the years, the route has extremely high ridership, especially on 122nd, many stoplights, and there isn’t enough time between timepoints on some runs. In 2005, one 71 driver once announced that unlike other routes, there’s absolutely nowhere to make up lost time, and additionally, “no the bus didn’t break down, no the farebox didn’t jam, no the bus didn’t overheat, it’s just late.”
    “No, I will not have a good day” was his response to a deboarding passenger.
    Perhaps she is aware of the other stores, and doesn’t shop there because of the transfer and/or is aware of some of the little details of the route.

    Grocery shopping on the bus is NOT A GOOD IDEA!
    I’ve done it before. When I’m at the store, once I’ve filled a hand basket (and grabbed at the most one gallon of milk in addition), I’m done.
    I also would shop at places later at night, when bus runs are much more reliable, and onboard the bus isn’t so crowded.

  23. Jason McHuff
    November 18, 2008 at 9:32 pm Link

    I also would shop at places later at night, when bus runs are much more reliable, and onboard the bus isn’t so crowded.

    Or do it during midday (depending on the route). I’ve found out myself that during rush hour is when getting off a bus with a full backpack and multiple bags of groceries is problematic. Later at night, buses can be less frequent and it doesn’t seem like a good idea to wait long with frozen items.

    Also, anyone in/near the Pearl District who needs cheap food should get over to the new Safeway. Milk is $1.49 a gallon and there’s bread for 25-50 cents a loaf. Do it soon, because the store does seem upscale and won’t be an oasis for long.

    Lastly, there’s a good overview of WinCo here

  24. Terry
    November 19, 2008 at 2:18 am Link

    I use my biccyle, and have affixed large citybike plastic bins on the rack in the back. I can haul ~50 pounds or more of groceries on it. Plus a backpack, if I want to carry more.

    You don’t need an expensive bike for this, either… just zip tie some cargo buckets on the side of a bike, and you are good to go. Mountain bikes should even be able to handle Cully’s streets.

    Of course, if you are physically disabled, then things get tough. But what can you do? If you are living off of $400 a month for your entire family, you are just kind of screwed. I’m sorry, but this isn’t Sweden, you don’t get to live in posh free housing with free medical and free food and everything else. Kind of sad?

    At the same time, even if they are more expensive, it is worth it for your long term health to buy fruit/veggies even if they are a little more expensive, as you will naturally live longer.

    I personally really hate Winco, and think a better solution is to cram people into higher density neighborhoods so they will have more options within walking distance. But then I’m just a pinko communist who voted for Obama.

  25. Nick theoldurbanist
    November 19, 2008 at 10:23 am Link

    “I personally really hate Winco…” (says Terry)

    Classist/elistist attitude here, perhaps? BTW, I am an independent who also voted for Obama.

    I would love to have a Winco somewhere in NW Portland; it bet it would do a landslide business, despite the “upsacle” demos of the ‘hood.

    And not everyone wants to bike–sorry to pop your bubble, Terry.

  26. Bob R.
    November 19, 2008 at 10:45 am Link

    Nick –

    So is it OK with you that people express disdain for farmers markets, New Seasons, and others, but anyone who doesn’t like WinCo is elitist?

    I used to shop at Cub Foods a lot before WinCo bought them (this was when I lived in Corvallis), but I found that WinCo let the properties and (more importantly) merchandise quality deteriorate.

    They do have low prices, and I recently went there looking for bargains to restock my freezer, but found their meat dept. selection, quality, (and frankly organization/cleanliness) sub-par to stores like Safeway and Fred Meyer.

    Does that make me an “elitist” or just someone who has made a normal, routine judgement of where to shop?

    As for the “And not everyone wants to bike” comment, I don’t think Terry said anything about wanting “everyone” to bike… just pointing out what was possible.

    [Note to those wishing to jump in: This is not the same Terry as most folks are used to seeing around here. Terry, can you add a last initial to your name just to avoid confusion? Thanks.]

  27. Nick theoldurbanist
    November 19, 2008 at 9:04 pm Link

    “So is it OK with you that people express disdain for farmers markets, New Seasons, and others, but anyone who doesn’t like WinCo is elitist?”

    >>>> No, Bob, I don’t have disdain for them–actually, I like them. But I want a standard line supermarket for my regular shopping available within a half mile from where I live.

    “Does that make me an “elitist” or just someone who has made a normal, routine judgement of where to shop?”

    >>>> No. But Winco is good for staples. Fred Meyer and Safeway are better for things like meat, fish, and probably a lot of produce. And if you shop the sales at these markets, you can ofter get better prices on things than Winco’s regular prices.

    I have a friend who lives up near Chris Smith who bakes his own bread. He used to shop at Food Front, but now drives out to Beaverton to Winco because he says the prices are much better for staples.

  28. Adron
    November 22, 2008 at 3:13 pm Link

    The comment was made “If the 72 was a streetcar line, (and the other big bus lines were too,)” etc., etc…

    That’s a crap theory. People don’t like to transfer because 99% of the lines in the city are not frequent enough and YOU WILL inherently stand out in the cold or the rain for 5, sometimes 10 or even 20-30 minutes. It only takes one or two transfers in someones’ lifetime for them to figure that out real quick. It sucks just standing there.

    As for Chris’ question, “Should service planning for transit include grocery choice as an explicit goal?” The answer to that is yes.

    My question also in response is, “Why isn’t it?” I mean, I understand in our current politcal-economic reality that political pull is usually what gets transit service, but at the core of the premise is to inherently move the economy forward… in the defining concept with that, grocery stores are part of the economy. They’re needed for people to interact and commit commerce. So yes, inherent in the purpose of transit is to connect these things.

    …Last Point

    I can’t really feel that much remorse for this person. She’s made bad decisions, many of them, and hasn’t learned. Thus she has to do annoying things to get by like take an hour + bus trip to the grocery store.

    I have many acquaintance that make minimum wage and they get by just fine. Some live out as far as Gresham or Hillsboro. The point is, she’s put herself in this situation, there are TONS of choices of were to live – on almost nothing – in this city and be close to schools, grocery stores, and every practical thing you want. What we get in Portland FAR EXCEEDS necessity and verges entirely on desire.

    The later truly being the goal and measure of a civil and accomplished society.

    …so really, the complaint of the long ride is invalid in my book. She has options, she just fails to make good decisions in life so that she can appropriately use those options.

  29. Erik Halstead
    November 23, 2008 at 7:28 am Link

    Matthew wrote: If the 72 was a streetcar line, (and the other big bus lines were too,) the transfers wouldn’t be as bad. Level boarding with multiple doors would make getting her cart in and out a lot easier, where as even the best BRT systems still have boarding gaps big enough to require a ramp deployment for that thing…

    Make this the second comment that, to use Adron’s phrase, That’s a crap theory.

    I’ve been to Seattle and watched people use the buses in the Metro Tunnel where platforms are at the same height as the floors of the DE60LF buses. I saw many people who were elderly or had handcarts get on and off the bus. Yes, there was a gap, one or two inches, but there were absolutely no problems with these folks getting in and out of the bus. I even saw wheelchairs navigate this gap with no problem. A good bus Operator should be able to drive up to the platform with no problem; that comes with training.

    Meanwhile, TriMet claimed that it had to spend a ton of money before a bus route could be converted to D40LF bus service. TriMet only spent a small amount of the money and started assigning D40LFs on routes without stop improvements (i.e. the 12, 33 and 57 lines). Try deploying the ramp without an improved stop when the ramp has to rotate more than 180 degrees. It’s no wonder that people believe that only a Streetcar can do better, because people believe that TriMet is doing the best that can be done when in fact TriMet, when it comes to designing quality bus service, in fact does a very poor job of bus stop design. (I know of one particularly busy stop on the 12 where there is only one specific place where the ramp can be deployed, the bus has to be a certain distance AWAY from the curb, and wheelchair users have to navigate a number of hazards including landscaping and a power pole just to get to the point. It could be mitigated if TriMet would spend the proper amount of money and build a proper stop on the opposite side of the street where there is plenty of room to build a full platform, with shelters and benches.)

    BTW – there are technologies that are currently available that allow for BRT vehicles to “properly” mate with a platform without magnets. And I’ve seen Streetcars and MAX trains overshoot their stops, too, and have to reverse or pull forward to make a proper stop (either to deploy their ramps, or to activate a signal.)

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