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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Desire Carts

This is not what "walkability" looks like when you watch flashy presentations by planning consultants:

Nevertheless, this is more representative of the lived experience of many communities that actually rely on walking than all those photos of people strolling with their overpriced coffee along cute downtown streets, before getting back in their cars to drive home. These are places where people practice walking for their routine needs. For many people, walking is not a neighborhood amenity, effort to save the environment, or personal fitness choice. It's simply the most practical way to get things done.

That doesn't mean it is easy and convenient, or even always safe. Often enough, people are walking in places that were not planned or designed with pedestrians in mind. Problems notwithstanding, the "walkability" of these places is a fact defined by their very usage.

It is precisely by identifying places where people walk, despite seemingly undesirable conditions, and then observing how they do it, that we can better understand how to make places where people will walk. By focusing on these locations, we also have an opportunity to improve conditions for the people who already depend on walking there while making it more attractive for even more people to join them.

One fascinating indicator of pedestrian activity in suburban-style development is what I refer to as "desire carts." They're odd clusters of shopping carts on the far edges of parking lots. These shopping carts accumulate where people leave them when continuing on foot.

Desire carts left at a gap that has been broken in the fence to allow people to walk where they need to go

Credit for the term goes to BikeJC, making reference to "desire lines," routes that have heavy demand and are frequently exhibited as shortcuts broken into the ground by steady foot traffic.

Noting locations of desire carts can indicate potential needs for pedestrian improvements. They are clear evidence of pedestrian activity, which might otherwise remain invisible. If nothing else, retailers should ensure there is a basic connection to the sidewalks in these locations, or at least pay enough attention to add a cart return to make their own job easier.

They also raise the question of why people do walk in these locations. On casual observation, I have noticed desire carts in suburban areas around larger cities, which have relatively high densities, reasonable access to transit, and monthly parking spaces are not free. That is to say, people are already walking through expansive parking lots and carrying their groceries home where there is an economic incentive and some alternative to owning a car. While less pronounced, I have seen sporadic carts in other locations where I suspected lower-income residents were walking in areas that lack transit service.

A final question, which could certainly use more observation: why are people carrying what are often large loads after leaving the parking lot, rather than bringing their own carts? In some cases they do bring a foldable cart, which they hang on the shopping cart and then use when they drop off the shopping cart. In other cases, it is less clear. Perhaps it is too impractical to use the cart. Maybe it doesn't fit through the gap in a fence, can't get up a curb on a busy street that is missing an ADA ramp, or is too difficult to deal with on the stairs to their apartment building? A better understanding may offer more clues for important pedestrian improvements.


  1. Shoppers perhaps don't use carts because they don't fit onto the bus easily.

    1. Good thought. I can't say I've happened to notice desire carts piled up by a bus stop, but I can imagine that happening. They have been observed accumulating at light-rail: https://twitter.com/urbanresidue/status/631250048072970240