How the Minneapolis grocery store boom is fighting traffic

At the Whole Foods in downtown Minneapolis, customers just walk right up to the store. Can you imagine? People who live nearby can!

At the Whole Foods in downtown Minneapolis, customers just walk right up to the store. Can you imagine? People who live nearby can!

Traffic — often, it's you, but most of the time it's someone else.

Traffic is generally treated as this real math-heavy, empirical deal because a lot of people have gotten a lot of credentialing in it and they're still paying off their loans. But like its sister concern, parking, it's maybe more of a mental/emotional/psychological thing than anything else.

For example, there are a lot of fun, real-world instances of traffic doing things you wouldn't really expect. Here's one from a couple months ago:

There are a lot more. Stateside, closing the chunk of Broadway through Times Square in Manhattan to car traffic decreased congestion on other streets and dramatically improved pedestrian safety. Some cities have torn out freeways and that's been fine. Without closing a street entirely, you can sometimes, counter-intuitively, shrink it and make it work better for cars. Obviously, this logic is not extendable out into infinity; you can't close all streets to cars and have that be a good idea.

So traffic is maybe more of a social science than a hard science, and it's worth thinking beyond the simple engineering diagrams. People make decisions: they find alternate routes, decide to walk to the gym, wait an hour past the evening rush to go to the store, and it's hard to model it all that accurately. You can read more about the concept of "induced demand" here.

One of the biggest and most understated stories in Minneapolis in the past decade is the addition of a whole bunch of grocery stores in walkable areas. You've got the downtown and Northeast Lund's, Dinkytown and Uptown Target Expresses, the downtown Whole Foods, the Wedge Table (rhymes with vegetable) on Nicollet, North Market off Victory Memorial Drive, Fresh Thyme in Prospect Park, and new co-ops in Powderhorn and Willard-Hay. There's a Mill District Trader Joe's and a Whittier Aldi under construction, and a new urban-format Cub in a development at 46th and Hiawatha just broke ground.

It's a lot! And this is a big deal, because it gives tens of thousands of people the opportunity to live a very different lifestyle.

Right now, the vast majority of people in America have to get in a car and drive somewhere to buy a loaf of bread. Much of Minneapolis, a medium-sized city, is like this. There are certain areas that are better than others. I live in Loring Park and don’t have a car and manage easily enough for my day-to-day needs, but that’s pretty rare, particularly if you need a family-sized place. 

With the addition of useful commercial activity in neighborhoods around town, more people will have the option to get a loaf of bread, a haircut, a cup of coffee, a slice of pizza, or AA batteries without hopping in a car. And there’s a feedback loop where adding goods and services makes an area more appealing, which attracts more residents, which in turn allows the area to support more goods and services.

Example: If you were a student at the University of Minnesota 10 years ago, odds are pretty good you drove to the Quarry Target/Rainbow or maybe the Midway Shopping Center for most of your grocery shopping. I, personally, took the 3 bus from 26th and Como to the downtown Target, but I'm pretty weird, and get occasional threats DMed to me on Twitter.

These days, there's a Target Express in Dinkytown and a Fresh Thyme in Prospect Park. A guy who grew up in Maple Grove but is now living in Marcy-Holmes can walk down the street with a backpack and buy three days’ or a week's worth of groceries without having to hop in a second-hand Toyota Corolla and drive to a different part of town.

So while the site of the Dinkytown Target Express is certainly generating more car trips than it did before the Target Express opened, in the grand scheme of things, there are many thousands fewer car trips happening because people aren’t driving to the Quarry as often.

The Dinkytown example in particular is fun, because coming to Minneapolis to go to school is a lot of Minnesotans' first experience with ~the big city~ other than going to Twins games as a kid. But, and don't tell anyone about this, aside from the bigger buildings placed closer together, a lot of people in Minneapolis still live a life pretty similar to people in Maple Grove, just with different bumper stickers—they're still driving everywhere.

And as we think about our city's future and also sort of importantly, the future of the whole world, which is greatly at risk of overwhelming calamity due to climate change, giving people that option is important. Maybe it lets them ditch the car, or maybe they don't lose the car entirely, but their household drops down to just one that they use to go to IKEA periodically. 

You’ve got to keep the broader metropolitan area in mind. It's complicated and not a direct one-to-one thing, but housing that isn't built in Minneapolis does end up somewhere. The apartment buildings we've built in Minneapolis over the past five years are occupied and people are living in them. If those people weren't living in a new building in Uptown, they'd either A) displace someone in Uptown who couldn't afford the rent hike (and that person ends up somewhere) or B) move to St. Louis Park five years earlier, which is less walkable, and then someone who would have been in St. Louis Park would end up in Eden Prairie, which is even less walkable, and so on and so forth.

Letting people live in Minneapolis (or even the nearby town of St. Paul) where this type of lifestyle is possible without rebuilding the entire city has to be a piece of the strategy. Pushing your housing demand out to, eventually, Albertville or whatever, where people are literally driving 100 miles a day is...bad.

Only a fraction (something like 15 to 20 percent) of car trips are for commuting to and from work. The rest are for other things, like going to buy that loaf of bread. Building a city where it’s possible to walk a few blocks to fulfill your basic needs knocks out a whole lot of that remaining 85 percent.

This post appeared originally on Nick Magrino's personal blog.


Minneapolis has an adopted goal of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. We won't be able to do that without reducing car trips—even electric cars aren't going to get us all the way to the goal. If we’re going to reach that goal, we’re going to need to build walkable neighborhoods.