UBC CanCart_UBC Office of Campus and Community PlanningWhen I was growing up in Seattle in the sixties, the neighborhood grocery where my mom shopped let her and other regular customers push purchases home in the store’s shopping carts. We lived two blocks away, and we returned the carts promptly to safeguard the privilege. It was sometimes my older siblings’ job to return the cart while the rest of us put away the provisions at home. Consequently, my family never owned a granny cart, but we never lacked for walking wheels either.

That’s the point of community carts: to extend cart access without necessarily extending cart ownership. Unfortunately, the era of neighborly cart-lending is long past. Still, community carts may enjoy a resurgence as our communities grow more compact and walkable.

Two Northwest nonprofit programs have actively promoted community carts. At the University of British Columbia, staff and students can check out a CanCart at no charge (pictured above) from any of six locations for as long as three days. Designed to fit on buses and through grocery aisles, and fitted for towing behind bicycles, CanCarts are perfect for hauling books and supplies. At last count, the campus had 85 units in service, substantially outnumbering the campuses car-share vehicles. The Seattle pedestrian advocacy organization Feet First ran a pilot for a similar effort at the city’s affordable, senior housing community of Westwood Heights in 2008.

  • airport luggage carts_Flickr_confidence, comelySuch nonprofit programs appear to be rare, but community carts are not. In fact, shared carts are actually commonplace. Just think about it: Many Northwest resorts and camps make garden carts available for guests moving in and out of their quarters. Rental centers across the region offer hand trucks for dollars a day. Many Laundromats provide wheeled carts for handling loads of clothes. Airports offer luggage carts for hire. And stores, of course, routinely provide shopping carts. (Trivia: grocery shopping carts are late arrivals among wheeled vehicles. The first patent was not issued until 1940, if Wikipedia can be trusted.)

    So one question is, What prevents community carts from becoming even more common? Why don’t groceries do now what they did for my mom in the sixties?

    One barrier is proximity. We lived two blocks from the small, neighborhood grocery. Nowadays, stores are bigger, fewer, and farther apart. Smart growth may remove this barrier, as more people move into dense, walkable neighborhoods.

    Another barrier is theft. When my family moved in 1977 from Seattle to a suburb of Washington, DC, I remember being surprised that grocery stores there not only refused to let customers wheel their groceries home, they didn’t even allow carts off the curb into their parking lots. Low steel fences with narrow openings let people pass through, but the carts were corralled in the loading zone between store and cars.

    Now, in places such as West Seattle where shopping cart theft is common, stores accomplish the same thing by means of electronic perimeters. Much like the invisible fences that keep dogs in their own yards, high-tech theft-prevention systems cause carts’ wheels to lock up if you try to cross a store’s property line.

    A third barrier is tradition. In some parts of Canada and the United States, and in many other countries, shoppers must deposit a coin into a dispenser to use a shopping cart. When the shopper returns the cart, the deposit is refunded. Deposit-refund systems, much like those used for the proliferating bike-sharing programs around the world (pdf, page 24) and for luggage trolleys at airports, would allow shopping carts to roam across neighborhoods and still find their way home. Unfortunately, in the Northwest, to my knowledge not a single retailer charges for using carts. Northwesterners are accustomed to free carts, and companies may fear that initiating a charge for carts would irritate customers. Which retailer will start first? Or will it be one of the region’s growing number of farmers markets?

    Until someone starts deposit-refund systems at stores and markets, communities can emulate UBC and Feet First’s programs, providing carts to registered users as a way to facilitate walking.

    In most situations and for most uses, I suspect, our urban, pedestrian future will hold mostly privately owned carts. But I also expect a steady proliferation of community carts in situations where they make sense: for groceries and hardware in high-rise neighborhoods, for example. In other words, before too long, a trip to the grocery may again include a community cart, as it did in my childhood.

    Next time: Shape-shifting cart-trailer, for foot or bike travel.

    Huge thanks to volunteer and urban planner Alyse Nelson for doing research that made this post possible.

    Photo of CanCart courtesy of University of British Columbia Campus and Community Planning.
    Photo of airport luggage carts courtesy of Flickr user confidence, comely under Creative Commons licensing.