The reason why my voice is so clear.
Is there’s no smack in my brain
The reason why my voice is so clear.
Is there’s no smack in my brain
Read an interesting article from ULI last week about the economic forces on and by grocery stores. With the rise of delivery services, it is possible that the supermarket will be undergoing its greatest change since America left the farm and needed to get their food from a store. That became a trend when we changed from a majority agrarian to a majority professional economy, in the 1920s. The first self serve supermarkets were started in the late 1910s early 1920s, to feed the appetite of a public newly unrooted from farms. This was also the decade when country music became a hit, for much the same reason.
To satisfy my curiosity about the locations of these grocery stores, here’s a map of all the supermarkets in the US, give or take a few dozen*.
This closely follows the density of the US, with about 30,000 grocery stores for 320,000,000 people. Some groceries, like Wal-Mart or Kroger, are so ubiquitous that they wash out the map, obscuring regional differences. So I minimized he icons of all grocery chains with over a thousand location, like Safeway or the Albertson’s group. The only local chain I had to minimize was Publix, a Florida chain that is established in the Southeast but unknown in the rest of the US.
The place where I got all this point data classed some markets as Asian, Filipino, or Japanese, even while including 99 Ranch, Lotte, or H-Mart as separate classes. This did result in some double counting, but gives us an overall pattern of Asian supermarkets in the US. These markets are pretty widespread across the US, but not numerous.
The most distinct map compared specialty discounters like Aldi or Trader Joe’s, offering mostly store-brand or off brand items at discount. You can tell where these two started, and how they are spreading. Even though they are present in the East, Trader Joe’s is not as numerous as the smaller, cheaper Aldi.
Also distinct, but not as widespread are the “event” grocers, like HEB and Wegman’s. These are macro grocers, with multiple zones and experiences to pull from a wider area. They remain regional, but are quasi-destinations in their catchments.
As I was collecting data for this, it occurred to me that Target and Wal-Mart, even bigger and full service department stores, also sold groceries. As far as I know, every Wal-Mart sells groceries in its warehouse footprint. Its the first thing you see to your left when you enter. Many Targets offer groceries at the far wall from the entrance, the better to expose customers to all the non-clothing, non-durable gods merchandise on the way. The attributes for Target indicated if they sold groceries,
The attributes for Wal-Mart did not specify whether the places old groceries or not. You can see why I had to shrink the icons for Wal-Mart in these maps. Wal-Mart is often the only store in town, serving markets that were formerly claimed by a desperate collection of local specialty stores. They both opened these towns to the global marketplace of affordable goods and foreclosed on their local commerce. Amazon will probably turn many of them to dark boxes within a decade.
I had been interested since childhood in the distribution of these chains since noticing that the grocery stores my grandma went to in Louisiana were nothing like the ones her daughter took me to in Georgia. Google Maps will let you generate a measles maps of these things, but they cut off access to the locations in text formats over 5 years ago. I discovered this community of travelers devoted to educating the GPS in their RVs about the specific locations of everything in the US and Canada. These Point of Interest (POI) files are a godsend for someone like me, with a habit of collecting national data.
This also allows us to look at food deserts, casually. A full explanation of food deserts would have to index smaller and more ad-hoc markets, along with fast food chains. There are POI files for some of those, but not all. The classic quarter mile walk circle is not as useful when a standard supermarket is surrounded by an eighth of mile of parking lot for customers arriving in cars. Not on this map are the corner stores, bodegas, convenience stores, and small groceries that serve markets deemed unprofitable for supermarkets like the ones shown on these maps. Those places offer amuck more limited stock of groceries, at a much higher price, as they cannot use economies of scale in purchasing or delivery. It is all well and good to show a map of locations, but the real story is in prices.
I wonder where I can get that data.
* I had to work up the Piggly Wiggly coverage for this. Time to pay it forward.
Finally, what about capacity? I already talked about seating/standing capacity of streetcars and buses, but how many of theirs spaces actually get used? There are several ways to look at this, not all of them well measured.
There’s the ratio of seats to occupants, the ratio of vehicle occupancy to its break even energy, the number of seats offered per hour, the number of passengers moved per hour, and the number of passengers moved by the system in a year. The last f these metrics is the easiest to measure with the data firm the National Transit database, because it takes an aggregate measure of all transit passengers in the year. We could get more detailed, not just in the transit line but in the number of passengers boarding and alighting at each station, but that is data that the transit agency may or many not collect, and may or may not make available to the public.
Its great when a transit agency releases origin/destination data. This shows what routes and segments are the most crowded, and most deserving of better service. Conversely, it shows what stations are neglected by passers, to see where there are opportunities for station area development. The same transit vehicle serves the most lucrative and the most forsaken station, there is no reason a transit agency should not seek to enable transit area development wherever it can. Every piece of road is a development opportunity for traffic, after all. If a place is successful, DOTs just widen the road to it. If a place is unsuccessful but could be, DOTs build a road to it. There is no reason save maintenance and management that a transit agency should not think in the same way.
Of course, the data is the data, and the true meaning of transit capacity: passengers per hour, eludes us at a national level. At a national level, however, I can tell you how many passengers are carried per vehicle, simply by dividing passenger miles traveled by vehicle (revenue) miles traveled. A neat trick for over 800 bus transit agencies in 50 states.
Again, streetcar performs better than bus, but not significantly so. The sample sizes are much different, and some bus systems have incredibly high occupancy. It would be illuminating to see what sorts of systems are the best performing.
Of course, I can do any of these comparisons for light, commuter or heavy rail, and even have in the past. Even better perspective would be comparing these with traffic, biking or walking. I might do that, as soon as I figure out how to present it clearly. The real asset of transit is in land use, but this is a poorly captured, documented or even proven asset. Too many of the ways that we finance and build assume traffic as the primary mode. Walking is merely the way to trot from building to parking space. Transit and biking are such minorities as to be dismissed as insignificant. But if they don’t have to be, and if we could benefit by enabling them, it serves us to disassemble the legal and practical fortress that binds America to traffic.
Next up, something completely different. I’m almost done noodling with 3,000 transit stations, but that’s not what I’m writing about next.
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