Civilized Food Gathering

Brisbane’s weather and constantly improving bike infrastructure lends itself well to shopping trips by bike but Brisbane shopping centres also need to do their bit to attract more cyclists and save themselves money while they’re at it.

Food is great. It titillates your palate, keeps chefs employed and gives you an excuse to stop work in the middle of the day. Best of all though, is that it prevents you from dying. Humans have used various methods throughout evolution to acquire food from hunting and gathering through to the advent of agriculture and eventually to urbanisation and the rise of the supermarket.

But with supermarkets coming about in the context of car-centric urbanisation, a raft of problems came with them. For one, the amount of space required to park all the cars being used for grocery getting at a supermarket often equals or exceeds the space required for the supermarket itself. For all the touting of convenience they use to market themselves, supermarkets (and large retail complexes more generally) are made all the more inconvenient by the need to park a considerable distance from the entrance and then lug all the groceries back the same way prior to exiting while inhaling other shoppers’ exhaust fumes and putting yourself in danger by mingling on foot with cars which are reversing, scrambling for free parks and drivers often losing their shit due to the stress of the whole experience.

To make all this even more bizarre, the companies that own and run supermarkets and shopping centres are losing vast amounts of money on acquiring the land for the parking, building the required infrastructure and the opportunity cost of relinquishing space that could otherwise be used for more retail but they seem either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. To me, the finger of blame points squarely once again at the auto industrial complex made up of oil companies, car companies and associated fringe industries which, over the last eighty or so years, have fooled the populace into believing that cars are mandatory in every aspect of life to the point that the illusion of being indispensable is so strong that to even question it constitutes a kind of breaking of an unspoken, irrational taboo as though the car is some kind of almighty demigod. And that’s what the auto industrial complex was shooting for all along – yes folks, I’m sorry but you have been duped. As far as I’m concerned, those norms need to be stomped on, dowsed in petrol (from all those cars) and burned out of our collective psyche.

Luckily, a replacement shopping vehicle for the car is ready and waiting. Bicycles have been used as beasts of burden in various places such as Amsterdam for a long time. The Dutch are the inventors of the box bike or “bakfiets” and it makes perfect sense for tasks like shopping, ferrying children around and in many places they are also used as inner city commercial delivery vehicles.

There’s no reason why a city like Brisbane couldn’t or shouldn’t become a city of cycle shoppers and commuters too. The Brisbane City Council’s transport plan certainly has bicycle oriented transport high on it’s agenda with plans for more and better bikeway link-ups to useful destinations and with Coles, Woolworths and Aldi popping up like weeds on every other corner, your local supermarket is well within riding distance. Taking your kids along for the trip isn’t that difficult in most cases either with up and coming bikeways and riding allowed on Brisbane’s mostly deserted footpaths plus a myriad of options available to carry the really little ones (see the bottom of this article). So whilst there’s really not very much stopping you from bicycle shopping right now, there are still improvements to be made for it to become a smooth, ultra convenient, default choice.

From my experience, one of the major blockers is the facilities currently not being provided by the shopping centres. Rocking up to a place like Westfield Chermside on a bike is fine with the bikeway leading all the way up to the northern entrance but that’s where the fun stops. Westfield provides one undersized, uncovered set of bike racks which is also used for motorcycle parking and as a smoking area. It seems that each time I’m locking my bike, there’s some inconsiderate twat who feels that it’s no problem to stand there and light up because “there’s no people here, just some cyclists, right?”. And that’s if you can find a spot to lock your bike in the first place. Judging by how few bike parks are available on most Thursday nights or Saturday mornings I’ve visited, it’s not that people don’t want to ride to Westfield Chermside, there just needs to be more and better facilities in order to comfortably accommodate everyone who wishes to cycle and ultimately save Westfield a bucket of money. Not only would they be saving by having to cater for fewer cars but there’s more than one source like this which confirms that more cyclists mean more business. And to top it off, catering for cycling would make great PR and a real point of difference for the centre to market itself with.

Westfield Chermside bicycle racks
There’s no shortage of people wanting to ride bikes to Westfield Chermside but the smokers and uncovered bike racks are a bit of a bummer.

The other bonus for shopping centre management is that the kind of bike infrastructure they need doesn’t have to be grand or overly expensive and would usually require the sacrifice of very few car parks to start with. All that would be required is to replace a few car parks with some decent, well spaced rows of racks, a roof over the top, some louvered walls to keep the rain out when it’s really heavy and a covered walkway to the entrance. Building one of those near each major entrance and having a security guard come past to keep the smokers and thieves away would make a great start. All of a sudden, the shopping centre would have accommodated something in the order of several dozen shoppers in the space of probably less than half that many car parks.

Next is the problem of access. Nobody wants to ride their bike through a busy carpark to get to the entrance and while some shopping centres like Westfield Chermside are lucky enough to have a bikeway built up to one of it’s entrances, most have none. So what about people arriving at one of the centre’s other entrances? Westfield shopping centres aren’t usually small so riding to the only entrance with a bikeway isn’t exactly convenient. This is where centre management is going to have to take the lead and provide a safe thoroughfare for bikes to each of it’s entrances so people can store their bikes in those fabulous new undercover bike racks I mentioned. Painted lines and textured green paths may do the job in some instances but to really encourage people to ride in, some physical barriers from those reversing cars are what’s in order.

Exactly how all that would be implemented would vary case by case but I think this is one area where the Brisbane City Council might be able to offer assistance to centre management and at the same time provide incentive to integrate the council bikeways with good bike access to shopping centres. Maybe that means some free consultation from council engineers, maybe it’s a discount on rates for more bike infrastructure built. I’m not really sure but I think if the shopping centres can coordinate with the council to build integrated bus terminals, surely some comparatively light weight bike infrastructure should be a breeze.

When it comes to the bikes suitable for shopping, the bakfiets is far from your only option. Cargo bikes come in various shapes and sizes and to suit various budgets but the thing they all have in common is that they make grocery shopping more fun, healthier, more convenient and less of a chore. To get in on the act, you can do something as simple as grabbing that old mountain bike from the back of the garage and buying a cheap bike trailer and some pannier bags to carry your groceries. That’s where I’m at with my cycle shopping at the moment and it’s working out pretty well. I did get a bit extravagant with the mountain bike by adding a set of fenders, some fancy Portland Design Works grips and swept back handle bars but you certainly don’t need to go to that extent.

Cannondale f4 mountain bike
My shopping bike started off as a Cannondale f4 mountain bike that looked like this.
Cannondale f4 shopping bike conversion
What was once a mountain bike is now a shopping and town bike.

That rig can carry 40kg in the trailer and close to the same on the rear rack though I haven’t ever needed to carry that much. For most grocery runs, I can comfortably get a week’s worth of groceries well under that weight. And while riding loaded up is not that difficult after a few practice runs, overloading yourself is pointless because the bike starts to get a bit gnarly and the sheer weight can cause things to start to stress and break. If you have that much stuff to get, just do two trips or get a second trailer for another adult in the house and get them to come along. It’s bike riding, remember – we like bike riding.

Shopping bicycle with trailer
Loaded up but this rig can take quite a bit more than shown here.

For the sake of safety and convenience, I recommend that you lose your clipless pedals and shoes on your shopping bike in favour of flat pedals. For one thing, if you’re unlucky enough to ever take a spill while you’re loaded up and wearing cleats, getting pinned is a distinct possibility. You may also find that you need to put your foot down quickly in some slow speed situations and that’s a slightly different (though not necessarily worse) ball game with a trailer full of groceries. And besides that, flat pedals allow you to wear normal shoes or maybe even thongs because clopping around a supermarket in a pair of cleats is just not necessary.

Oh and besides your green bags, you may also want to pack a few bungee chords or luggage straps in case a few items need to be lashed to the rear rack or on top of the trailer.

The reason (aside from the cost) that I like the ordinary-bike-plus-trailer setup is that when you aren’t grocery shopping, that trailer clips off in two shakes of a lamb’s tail and it becomes, well, an ordinary bike. And a pretty darn good looking one too if I do say so myself. What that also means is that there are no special tyres, chains, pannier bags or anything else to buy as the case may be with a bakfiets or longtail – it’s all just ordinary bike stuff that you can get from 99Bikes. And because it’s a mountain bike, you will almost certainly have a gear range low enough to tackle just about any hill while loaded up.

Then again, your requirements might be a bit different to mine. Maybe you need to carry more stuff, maybe you have kids who are a bit too young to ride on their own or maybe you want a little battery powered assistance for those hills. There are lots of option available to cover all those situations and more. The fine details of those probably warrant an entire article all to themselves so I won’t go into them here other than to provide the following links.

So there you have it – hopefully all you need to start shopping (and generally getting around) by bike.

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