For many reasons, most people hate seeing shopping carts clustered together in their neighborhood. (I actually wrote about this years ago for my other blog, before I was really trying to think critically about cities.)
But like many elements of an urban environment, clusters of neighborhood shopping carts can carry hidden meanings. Most obviously, they can reveal information about the demographics and consumer habits of an area. However, more than anything else, I think, shopping carts indicate that a neighborhood is not quite walkable enough.
Provo illustrates this idea well. The suburban-style neighborhoods set up against the foothills rarely see many shopping carts. Those neighborhoods have more income homogeneity than downtown neighborhoods, but it’s also true that they’re not very walkable. More specifically, very few people in Provo’s east side neighborhoods live within realistic walking distance of a grocery store. As a result, it makes little sense for residents’ to steal shopping carts.
By contrast, downtown neighborhoods tend to have more shopping carts. These neighborhoods also tend of have much higher walk scores, and most importantly, are located proximate to several grocery stores.
But the grocery stores aren’t quite close enough to many residences to make frequent walking feasible. From my house in the south Joaquin neighborhood, it takes about 13 minutes to walk to the grocery store. I walk to the store often, but carrying groceries home can be heavy. And because a round trip walk can take about a half an hour — just in travel time — it’s not something I can do everyday. As a result, I tend to buy more things at once and make fewer trips.
The result is that people who walk to the store need a way to carry a lot of groceries home. Some of those people steal — or “borrow” — shopping carts.
By contrast, imagine if residents had a grocery store within a five minute walk of their homes. Frequent trips to the store would become more convenient and it’d be easier to carry groceries home. Suddenly, more people could walk and fewer people would need shopping carts to carry groceries.
The take away lesson here is that shopping carts may indicate that a neighborhood sits just a little bit too far from surrounding amenities. In other words, the carts are indicative of a kind of “walkability gray zone.” Having that gray zone in a city is certainly better than a suburban-style lack of walkability, but it also suggests that more people would like to walk than convenience currently allows. Those shopping cart thieves, after all, already walk to do their errands. By extension, shopping carts also may indicate neighborhoods where walkability could be bolstered with minimal investment.