Why and How to Shop by Bike

I enjoy shopping for most of my food on my bike. A few people over the years have asked me to write a blog post about this. Here it is…

The benefits

1. You save money

I can fit only so much food on my bike when I shop so I buy only what I need. The limited space on my bike makes impulse buys—always processed and almost always packaged in plastic—very difficult unless I eat them on the spot at the store or while riding home, risking my life for chocolate.

2. You eat fresher food

When you shop by bike, because you can bring only so much home, you make a few trips every week rather than one trip every week or two. You have very fresh food on hand, it tastes better and you waste less of it because it has less time to turn before you can eat it. This takes a bit more time than major shopping just once every week or two does, however, on these frequent trips, I can zip in and out with my smaller purchases and often go in the 10-items-or-less aisle. And I’m working some exercise into my shopping too, which I need to do anyway (see #4).

3. The healthiest food fits best on your bike

Guess what? The processed stuff with its excessive packaging gobbles up precious cargo space on your bike so you’ll want to opt for fresh produce and bulk items—food that you can also happen to buy with much less waste, if any. Don’t you just love how all these habits connect together?

A recent farmer’s market haul I brought home on my bike

4. You get some exercise

I am no hardcore cyclist. I don’t don the lycra garb that so many people wear where I live. They all pass me and that’s just fine. It takes me about 15 minutes to ride to the farmer’s market each way and about 8 minutes or so each way to ride to Whole Foods. I pass a local store, Piazza’s Fine Foods, on my way home from my favorite cafe—about a 15 minute ride each way—and shop there regularly (I try to shop small and am determined to do so even more now that Amazon will buy Whole Foods). So every week, just for food shopping—I squeeze in at least an hour of riding.

5. You don’t burn fossil fuel

Not only do I fill up less, I also put fewer miles on my car and my tires last longer. One day after my younger daughter goes off to university in Canada, I’d like to ditch my car altogether.

6. You zip through traffic and find better parking

Rush hour here in Silicon Valley lasts from about 8am to 7pm. High tech companies hire like crazy, developers build like crazy and public transit barely exists, which is completely crazy. The resulting gridlock can drive you over the edge. And once you arrive at your destination, you often can’t find parking. Riding often takes less time than driving. My farmer’s market runs on Sunday mornings, so although I wouldn’t fight traffic driving there, I would struggle to find parking. A couple of years ago, the City of Palo Alto installed several additional bike racks on the street where the market operates so I can always find a spot to lock up my bike. The grocery stores near me also provide at least a few bike racks.

Well okay, you might have to ride around a little to find a free bike rack at my popular farmer’s market

7. You take in your surroundings more

Riding my bike to the farmer’s market, I regularly run into my neighbors (not literally…), I’ve scored books sitting by the side of the road, I’ve stopped at yard sales where I’ve found jars and inexpensive kitchen tools, I hear the birds sing, I feel the wind blowing on my face (but not through my hair because I ALWAYS wear a helmet)… It’s just so much more pleasant than driving.

books and fresh food
Free books I found on my way to the farmer’s market one Sunday morning

How to shop

1. Remember, they’re always trying to kill you

In 2004, a Honda CRV making a left-hand turn into a driveway I was riding past at that moment plowed into me. Beware most the deadly, turning-left-into-a-driveway cars of doom! I suffered a broken tibia, small fractures encircling the top of my tibia, a dent in the top of my tibia from the impact of it ramming up into my kneecap and a “pulverized”—the actual term my orthopedic surgeon used—meniscus. “Over the next six to nine months, we’re going to get to know each other very well,” he told me as I lay in my hospital bed, giddy from a large dose of morphine. I burst into tears and said, “I don’t want to know you!” Dr. Test couldn’t put me back together again until the next morning since he had scrounge up all the parts—a metal plate, five disturbingly large screws and bone putty (yes, that’s a thing).

I had to keep my weight off my leg for 10 weeks. My leg muscles atrophied and never recovered. Once able to get around on my crutches after a couple of weeks, I did my physiotherapy exercises at home for three hours every day. I didn’t ride a bike for two years and when I finally got on one for the first time, I had trouble steering because I shook for the entire 15-minute ride.

Today I ride as much as possible for errands and I diligently watch cars and my surroundings. Like my expert cyclist boyfriend Chandra says, “Remember, they’re always trying to kill you”—cars, other cyclists, pedestrians, bike-chasing dogs, suicidal squirrels careening toward your tires… 

Maybe I’ve completely scared you off of shopping by bike now. I can’t help myself from writing all the gory details… Be vigilant! Stick to bike lanes, stay off of busy roads, ride the extra miles necessary to stick to quiet streets, don’t ride on the sidewalk and always wear a helmet.

2. Use rear baskets, panniers or a crate

You will need a bike rack—generally on the rear—to attach these to your bike. I have two baskets on the back of my bike that fold up when not in use. They can hold quite a bit. With a front basket, I could bring home even more but I don’t really need more for my small family. Cloth panniers can hold lots of food since the fabric gives to accommodate your food. A crate will also hold a pile of food. The video below shows you how to attach a wooden crate to your bike. Follow the same method for a milk crate or use bungee cords.

3. Use a bike trailer for a large household

If you buy lots of food for your large family and have a bike trailer, you can fit a ton of food in it. If you don’t have a bike trailer, you may find one on Craigslist. As with much sports equipment, people often buy these, find they never use them and need to unload them. Chandra once found one by the side of the road for free.

4. Avoid backpacks

I once brought home a pineapple in a backpack—back when still ate pineapples (I stick mostly to local food these days). I almost died. It threw off my balance and I had trouble riding home. Put the weight on your bike rather than on you.

5. Make a shopping list and assemble the necessary bags, jars and containers

One of the many benefits of zero-waste shopping (i.e., shopping with jars and bags) is that in order to know how many jars and bags to bring (you don’t want too many or too few), you create a shopping list and stick to it because you can fit only so much on your bike. Also, you know in advance that you can fit everything on your bike. Your BYOP (bring your own packaging) fits on your bike empty, so you know it will fit on your bike full.

My awesome mason jar bag from A Tiny Forest

Buy the mason jar bag above or download the pattern at A Tiny Forest on Etsy.

6. Lock up your bike and take all of your belongings with you

How will you get home if someone steals your bike while you shop? And there could be a jar thief lurking in your neighborhood, ready to pilfer your precious collection (well okay, probably not…).

7. Secure your goodies for the ride home

I have yet to lose so much as an apple off the back of my bike. I make sure nothing dangles precariously out the top of my bags and I either tie the shopping bag handles together or tuck them under the bar on my rack.

And if you don’t have a bike…

Last year, a friend of ours offered me this dreamy bike with one large pannier (not shown here). I knew he could sell it in about two seconds on Craigslist so we told him to do that. And it sold in about two seconds on Craigslist. Wouldn’t it be fun to shop on this though? If you’re looking for a new bike, consider buying second-hand.

13 Comment

  1. Shopping by bike is made easier if you live in an area that has shops within reasonable biking distance. Having bike lanes or similar infrastructure that makes it safer for bikers helps as well.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Absolutely. We have bike lanes here and apparently will get more (they were announced last week but still have to be approved by the city). My city is fairly bike friendly but we do need more infrastructure, better city planning–and mass transit!

  2. Danielle Epifani says: Reply

    Perfect timing! In one month I’ll be turning in my fossil burning car and having a little anxiety. It’s been 30 years since I’ve ridden a bike regularly and I live at the top of a steep hill. We have the most magnificent produce and local markets a 10 minute drive away. I’m looking forward to figuring out how this is going to work but I’m committed (to using a bike to get in shape and taking the time to enjoy my town).

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Awesome! Good for you. I really enjoy riding to the farmer’s market. It’s just not the same when I drive and trying to find parking is so stressful. I like the staying in shape/shopping combo too. It’s the good kind of multi-tasking. Enjoy!

  3. I live in Los Angeles and use my bicycle as my main mode of transportation and I love it. I’ve always been a fan of shopping, commuting and moving around the cities I live in by bike. That includes New Orleans, St. Louis and Cleveland. But LA, with all of its challenges, has to be my favorite! You can’t beat the weather or the time and money saved by not having to deal with parking and traffic!!! I love this list, Anne Marie, and agree with you on every point. Thanks for taking the time to post 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you for taking the time to read the post! I was in LA in January for a week. I can understand why you’d prefer to bike down there rather than drive! Parking was very stressful and expensive too. Thanks for the info on LA and other bikeable cities. In the US, I’ve only lived here in Northern California, so I can only speak about biking here. I’m glad you’ve found biking so enjoyable all over 🙂

  4. Yes! I love this! I use a rack and panniers, which have detachable straps for easy carrying, and once I’m on the road my bike feels perfectly balanced, even with a full load. And it’s amazing how much all that exercise adds up, even if you’re only a few minutes from the shops or farmer’s market. Thanks for sharing!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for checking out the post. One day I’ll get detachable panniers. That sounds ideal! Happy shopping 🙂

  5. this seem awesome, i’m considering shopping with my bike as well. 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Great! Thank you 🙂

  6. Tip for anyone carrying boxes of eggs: Keep the box upright and secure so they eggs don’t bounce around. Upright eggs can’t break (the shape prevents it — isn’t nature awesome?!) 🙂 I figured this out after a few wasted eggs. Also, get them in the cardboard kinds of boxes, not the plastic ones. Apart from being eco-unfriendly, plastic ones don’t protect the eggs as well 🙂

    I put my box of a dozen eggs at the bottom of my tote bag, secured by my loo roll XD

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for the tip!

  7. I just decided to stop commuting by car! I live in Oakland and work in Novato, so it isn’t easy (bart + two buses or one bus and a 9 mile bike ride), but I have just been feeling adamant lately about being as crazily plastic-free, fossil-fuel free, etc as I can. Thanks for your tips and encouragement to bike for food as well. So sorry to hear about your accident. I was hit too 3 years ago (I was on a motorcycle which was stupid to begin with) by a negligent driver. His lazy forgetting to look before u-turning across four lanes had a huge cost for me – broke my femur and both sides of my pelvis. Required surgery and obviously my muscles haven’t been the same. It’s so crazy how someone’s simple carelessness can cost a victim so much, and Bay Area drivers just terrify me. It’s hard for me to explain my paranoia while driving (or while others are driving) to people who haven’t been endangered before by people’s laziness or carelessness. Needless to say, I’m not back on a motor bike (too fast to travel without a car’s steel cage!), but I am braving the streets on my bicycle again! Glad to hear you’re back at it as well

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