Zip Cart?

Community carts remove a barrier to walking.
This post is 18 in the series: Bicycle Neglect

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.


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  1. Eric Hess says:

    When I lived in New Zealand, the local grocery store would let you take home shopping carts (they took down your ID number and address), and would actually send someone to retrieve them the next day!

  2. Matt the Engineer says:

    When I was shopping for an apartment in San Francisco one of the buildings had a parking spot for shopping carts on each floor, each with several carts. I believe they had the local grocery store’s name on them, and the building had worked out a deal with the store.I didn’t move there, but thought it was a great benefit.

  3. Margaret Casey says:

    I have seen the use of the term “granny cart” in two separate places within one week. Each time, I am offended by the term – and I am old enough to have never, ever even heard them called “granny carts”. Please cease and desist!Thanks,A 70+ person!

  4. John Newcomb in Victoria says:

    Here in Victoria, we have an initiative between our uni and a little company, Tony’s Trailers, to get carts, bikes and trailers into the community. Interesting project is to furnish homeless with a bike and a trailer so they can get around a wider area to collect recyclables: Links:

  5. Alan Durning says:

    Everyone,At least two readers are offended by the term “granny cart.” I certainly intended no offense, and it certainly occurred to me that the name might seem age-ist to some. But the term is widely used, and people know what it means. I couldn’t find another term that was as understood and concise. Would else should we call them? Personal shopping cart? Sidewalk cart? Walking cart? John Newcomb in Victoria,Interesting. Thanks for the links!

  6. Sir Cartsalot says:

    Walking Cart sounds nice.Maybe something like Cart Wheels works too?

  7. Alan Durning says:

    Town Cart? City Cart? Pedi-Cart?

  8. Nancy Kabza says:

    I am looking for a community on the East Coast, preferably below Virginia that allows and accomodates golf carts as a mode of transportation. I visited a community in FL that has 70,000 people over 55 and 90% of them drive EVERYWHERE in their golf cart. I would like to see if there are other communites that offer that same luxury, but am having trouble finding them.

  9. Sir Cartsalot says:

    Shop-N-Cart? …Just “Binged” that phrase, and found a link for a Shop N Go from It’s a portable folding shopping cart with a waterproof bag. And when the bag is removed, the Shop N Go converts into a dolly for moving heavy boxes and small furniture.Who knew?! It sounds awesome!

  10. Margaret Casey says:

    I just saw your article reprinted on CENTER LINES. Thank you for changing the title to “Zip Carts”. Good Work!PS:Why does yuor site always ask for 2 “enter the word below”? Is not one enough?

  11. Rex Redmon says:

    We have an inexpensive collapsible one we use to walk to the store with several times a week. It holds several bags of groceries and hangs on the wall when not in use. Our neighbor just pushes one of the local grocer’s carts home and returns it on her next trip but I’m not sure they would really like that idea. I doubt they would prosecute an 80 year old. Simple, effective, affordable technology.

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