Wednesday, January 03, 2007

COLUMN -- Urban grocery gap is a transportation problem

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:31 AM |  

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

So we have another "social justice" problem — the "urban grocery gap." The Pioneer Press reports there are fewer major grocery stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul than in the suburbs. Consequently, urban shoppers pay premium prices for groceries at smaller markets and convenience stores, which generally don't have the variety of healthy foods available at the larger chain grocery stores.

"It makes no sense that people in cities, who are more mass-transit bound, with less income, are subject to the highest grocery prices," the Pioneer Press quotes Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Pardon me, Mr. Mayor, but it makes perfect sense.

Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray jumped on the obvious angle of this story: The elitist NPR book-bag totin' crowd are raging about the unfairness of the very culture they work so hard to create — a European village of small shops connected by mass transit. He's spot on. However, that doesn't mean the grocery gap isn't a problem. It is, but it's not a social justice problem; it's a transportation problem.

The Pioneer Press reported there are a total of 10 top-five food-chain stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul, compared with 123 in the suburbs. True as far as it goes, but a quick distance search on reveals there are 13 Cub Food stores within 10 miles, measured from downtown St. Paul, and 20 within 10 miles of Minneapolis. That compares to three within 10 miles of my house in Afton – the closest being 6.5 miles away.

The point is there is no shortage of chain stores within reasonable driving distance of urban areas. Rybak acknowledges that people living downtown drive out to the suburbs for groceries. In all likelihood, they drive no farther than I drive to shop. But here's the rub — 44 percent of urban citizens don't own automobiles and require public transportation to and from grocery stores. Rybak's description of these people as "mass-transit bound" just might be the most truthful comment about mass transit ever made by any public official.

The Pioneer Press describes the "ordeal" of mass-transit bound St. Paul resident Leon Davis — a two-hour, two-bus trip to purchase milk and whatever else he can carry, including having to grab a coat (gasp) and "trudge" to the bus stop. Hyperbole (and cynicism) aside, Davis is a great example of what self-interested new urbanists don't think about when inflicting subsidized public transportation solutions on the rest of us.

Public transportation is not just about moving people from point A to point B. It's about transportation that actually serves a purpose. People have a reason for wanting to get to point B, in this case grocery shopping. And whether public transportation gets them there in two hours or 10 minutes, they have the same problems.

• They have to get to a transit stop and wait regardless of the weather.
• They have to adhere to public transportation schedules and routes.
• They are limited in amount and kinds of groceries by how far they have to carry them.
• What do you do with an armload of groceries on a crowded bus or train? (Hint: Don't run out of milk on a Sunday after the Vikings play).

Hybrid buses and shiny trains aren't going to solve those problems. Buses and trains are networked transportation with virtually no flexibility. Yet we continue to spend millions of dollars on mass transit that ultimately subsidizes the convenience of Vikings season-ticket holders from Bloomington more than it makes grocery shopping less expensive and more convenient for a Leon Davis.

Despite Rybak's credulity, existence of a "grocery gap" makes perfect sense, and it is largely the result of utopian policies that ignore everyday realities like grocery shopping via a bus or train. The solution to the grocery gap is not Rybak meeting with executives from Lunds, Whole Foods and Kowalski's markets — not the places to stretch your food budget, unless you're shopping for "Lobster Helper."

The solution is providing convenient transportation from urban areas to existing grocery stores. (How about a jitney service from urban neighborhoods to suburban markets?)

People are "mass-transit bound" only because politicians are bound to their narrow view of mass transit. It's about time we put policy emphasis where it belongs — on people's problems, not the Twin Cities' image. My guess is when a train is finally cruising along University Avenue, Leon Davis will still be grabbing a coat and trudging to the bus stop in quest of a carton of milk. But the train will be really cool.

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