Atlantic Cities

Why In-Town Big Box Stores Might Not Be As Awful As You Think

Why In-Town Big Box Stores Might Not Be As Awful As You Think
Flickr/ElvertBarnes

City-dwellers love to rag on big box stores. They’re large and ugly and kind of dehumanizing. They require vast seas of surface parking. They sell the antithesis of the idealized urban shopping experience, in which a shopper on foot might hit multiple locally owned specialty shops for her hardware, her art supplies and her bubble bath.

What’s there to possibly like about the big-box alternative?

Well, here is one factor urban critics may not have considered: What if in-town big box stores encourage people to drive less? That is, after all, a major policy objective of smart growth. Plenty of people who don’t want a big box store in their midst still drive 20 miles to get to one. Why not cut out those unnecessary emissions? And if you could go to a Sam’s Club once a month instead of a Safeway every week, wouldn’t that get people out of their cars more, too?

Consider the case of Davis, California, a famously bike-friendly college town. The city is surrounded by agricultural easements that function like urban growth boundaries, and its zoning code for years kept out big-box stores. In fact, this is what Big Box development in the Sacramento region looked like just a few years ago (Davis is the little blue island):

In 2006, Davis residents voted on a ballot measure to amend the zoning code for a particular parcel of land off Interstate 80 in the eastern part of town.

“But everyone knew it was this Target that was going to be opening at this specific site,” says Kristin Lovejoy, a UC-Davis Ph.D. student who studied what happened next. “It was totally controversial, everyone was talking about it, and there was a lot of anti-Target discussion because Davis is this sort of progressive town, where it would be counter to our aesthetics and our culture. Are we going to allow this big box store in to our idealistic town where we all go to the farmer’s market?”

In fact, people did. The measure passed by 51.5 percent of the vote, and the Target opened in October of 2009.

Lovejoy and four other researchers at the university’s Institute of Transportation Studies took the opportunity to study how the new store would change residents’ shopping and travel patterns. And it turned out, for one thing, that people in Davis were already shopping at big-box stores – they were just driving long distances to get to them.

Lovejoy and her colleagues surveyed residents both before and after the store opened about where they shopped for items commonly found in a Target (bedding, electronics, garden supplies, etc.). They also asked people about their most recent shopping excursions, where exactly they went, how they got there and whether they were already on their way to somewhere else. Before the Target was built, people in Davis were traveling on average about 18 miles one-way from their homes to shopping destinations outside of town.

The researchers then took this data on the frequency, length and type of trips people were making and calculated monthly vehicle-miles-traveled estimates before and after the Target. Before, residents were driving about 97 miles a month for their cleaning supplies, patio items and such. After, that number dropped to 79.6 miles. The frequency of shopping trips to downtown Davis didn’t change much, suggesting the new Target was siphoning more business from far-flung big boxes than local downtown stores.

The study wasn’t able to measure shopping efficiency – whether people also drove less because one trip to Target can replace multiple trips to other locations. But if you've ever walked through a Target (and you probably have, as it turned out 90 percent of the people in this study did once one opened in Davis), you know the joy of suddenly realizing “now I don’t have to go to drug store, too!” Even hard-core buy-local advocates are not immune to this epiphany.

This research doesn’t mean that all big box stores will reduce VMT everywhere. There are certainly places where the opposite would be true. But to the extent that in-town shoppers are currently driving out of town to find these places – and this study tells us lots of people do this – the potential social good of reduced driving should weigh against the impulse that big box stores are just awful. 

“The point we wanted to make was ‘wow, this turns out be an example of bringing shopping closer to where people live,’” Lovejoy says.

And that’s a good thing (especially if it means those jobs stay in the community, too). Of course, reduced driving is just one policy goal, and the benefit may not be worth it if it comes at the expense of dying mom-and-pop shops (or other social costs). In Davis, though, that’s not exactly what happened.

“It turns out the majority of people shopped at these stores already,” Lovejoy says. “They secretly wanted it.”

Top image: The entrance to an urban Target in Washington, D.C. (Flickr user ElvertBarnes)

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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