Costco, Buy Local and the Carbon Footprint of my Light Fixture

The hint of a Costco in Rose Quarter had alternative transportation activists up in arms last week. Perhaps the sentiment was best expressed by this tweet:

Or, as my husband put it this morning, “once you’ve bought a gallon jar of mayonnaise, you don’t walk it home.” [from @jessicaroberts]

I honestly don’t know if this proposal is serious or even viable on a number of fronts, and since it could conceivably result in a zoning question coming before the Planning and Sustainability Commission I serve on, it would not be appropriate for me to render a judgment. But it once again calls the question of big box retail in the central city, and I think that merits some reflection.

I’m going to start by relating a story. A few years ago I replaced a vintage 1970’s light fixture in my upstairs hallway. Being energy conscious I installed a fluorescent light. On the evening of December 30th, it went dark.

So on New Year’s Eve day, I opened it up, removed the rather uniquely shaped bulb and trooped down to the local hardware store, which did not stock that bulb. I’m fortunate that my neighborhood also sports a specialty lighting supplier (Globe Lighting) and I headed down there to find that they had closed 10 minutes earlier for the holiday.

Since the fixture lights the stairway, it was a safety issue to get it working again, so on New Year’s Day I made a purpose-specific auto trip to Home Depot, only to find that they did not stock it either.

On Monday (after having strung a utility light in my hallway) I walked back to Globe Lighting. They did not have the bulb either, but referred me to sunlan Lighting, a wonderful shop on N. Mississippi that appears to have every lightbulb known to man, and a resource I won’t forget! I purchased two bulbs (so I would have one on hand the next time it burned out).

For the record, my trip to Mississippi was a transit trip-chain that included a visit to Kaiser on Interstate for a blood test.

As I was buying the bulbs, the proprietor suggested “keep the packaging in case it’s the ballast, not the bulb.” This was prophetic, and today I took another purpose-specific auto trip to Home Depot to buy another fixture (which will use CFL bulbs that I can purchase at my local grocery store).

So what’s the lesson here? Resolving this took six trips, four of which were accomplished or could have been accomplished by transit, walking or biking. But despite my preference for local shopping there were two auto trips to a big box store. Why? One was the only opportunity on a holiday, the other was for selection (my local hardware store had maybe 3 fixtures, Home Depot had 20+ in the category I was looking at). So my VMT and carbon emissions would clearly have been reduced if there were a Home Depot in the central city. And all the items I was considering purchasing could have been transported via a bike, walking or transit trip.

So is big box appropriate for the central city? At various times I have heard arguments against it ranging from the local businesses it would displace (a principal argument against a Home Depot at the Burnside Bridgehead), to induced auto travel, to opposition to a business because of its labor and other business practices (Walmart).

But on the other side of the argument, a lot of people in our society (including yours truly – we won’t talk about my relationship with Fry’s – the local Radio Shack will never come close) shop at these establishments occasionally or more frequently. How much VMT is being created by trips from inner Portland to Hayden Island, east county or Washington County?

That’s certainly something I’d want modeled if we were considering a serious proposal for a big box site in the central city…

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