Everyday shopping by bike

This article was published in 2000, in Newsletter 31.

Do you use your bike to do your general grocery shopping? We would like to hear about your experiences, your problems and your solutions. We will produce a montage of responses in a future newsletter.


Food shopping has, increasingly, become a car-based activity. Work is underway on two new superstores in Cambridge, one in Trumpington and another on the former gas works site between Newmarket Road and the river. Both will have large car parks. There are suggestions of another whopper at the new village of Cambourne, the Beehive Centre supermarket is being rebuilt, and we already have Sainsbury’s at Coldham’s Lane and Tesco at Bar Hill, Milton and Fulbourn.

The old gas holders off Newmarket Road, a familiar feature on the skyline for many years, being demolished to make way for Tesco

Will the continuing proliferation of large superstores produce more car journeys? The shift from small grocery shops and supermarkets to out-of-town superstores had a fundamental impact on car travel, but it could be argued that from now on, more stores mean shorter journeys. Waitrose makes this point about its Trumpington development as there are no large stores on the western side of the city.

Local shops have changed in the face of supermarket competition and now provide the basics people have forgotten or run out of. But many people even drive round the corner to buy a pint of milk.

Significant numbers of people do their shopping without a car. Yet, even if the absolute numbers are quite high, I suspect that the average spend of non-car shoppers is generally lower, and their presence less obvious, so large supermarkets are unlikely to pay more than lip-service to them. While most stores now have cycle parking (indeed, the City Council would rightly insist on this), does Tesco at Milton, for example, still have no bike racks as was the case last time I went there?

Few people with a choice would use a bus to shop for heavy groceries. Bus there and taxi back may be a viable solution, but is hardly ideal in reducing journeys as it involves a bus journey and a two-way car journey. It is not easy to carry materials for recycling that way either. But if it means someone can avoid having a car altogether, then it has environmental merit.

Shopping by bike is something that lots of us already do, yet others find really difficult. Solutions fall into four main categories:

  • More frequent shopping
  • Equipping the bike to carry loads
  • Using smaller, local shops
  • Home delivery

More frequent shopping has the advantage of providing fresher foods, but it is an inefficient use of time.

A trailer greatly increases the carrying capacity of a bike. Trailers are fairly expensive compared to the cost of the bike, but this is trivial compared with the costs of running a car. It makes a rather firm, visible statement about the user, and requires confident handling in traffic.

For many, panniers are the usual answer. Personally I find them too small. When not using a trailer, I use a folding crate strapped to the carrier with bungees, but the higher centre of gravity does mean that the bike is harder to handle. Carrier bags dangling from handlebars is a common sight, but definitely affect handling. Heavy backpacks are not likely to do much for your back.

In some areas of town, local shops are an easy solution but, elsewhere, lack of choice is a common problem. I am lucky to have an excellent greengrocers near me, so most fruit and vegetable shopping gets done there.

Home delivery is a recent phenomenon. OK, so it is not shopping by bike, but it is perhaps a means of running one’s life without the need for a car. While Tesco and Iceland have had a lot of publicity for their home delivery groceries, small scale Box Scheme deliveries are a less well known way of providing a selection of organic vegetables at the door.

So, over to you. Do you shop by bike. If not, why not? And if so, how do you work it out? Does having children make a difference? And, like me, do you end up with a garage full of things to be recycled?

David Earl