Frequent networks: escaping the “food desert”

For their piece on food deserts this week, National Geographic led off with this map of Houston.  It shows where large numbers of people who lack cars are located more than 1/2 mile from a grocery store.  

Houston food desert

"Public transportation may not fill the gap," the article says, but sometimes it can.  The article doesn't mention it, but Houston METRO's proposed System Reimagining will actually liberate many people, but not all, from the "food desert" problem.  

One thing is for sure: When we're talking about errand trips like groceries, most customers don't have a lot of time.  If there's a line to check out of the grocery store, and you miss an hourly bus, you'd better not have bought anything that needs refrigeration, and certainly nothing frozen.  So as always, frequency is freedom.  

So if you need frequency, Houston's transit system today is basically willing to take you downtown, which is not likely to be the path to your nearest grocery story.  Here's the frequent network today. 


It's radial, good for going downtown but not for many other purposes.  If you're lucky it will take you to a grocery store, but more likely it misses the ones nearest you.  And of course you may not be on this network at all.

Here's the reimagined frequent network:


Compare this to the food desert map (to see the detailed Reimagined network maps, see here)  Many of the areas of concern, especially those in the southeast and southwest, get a much richer network in a grid pattern.  The grid pattern means ready access to many commercial centers in your part of town, not just to the major destinations of the region.  And of course, a much larger share of the "food desert" areas are on this network, so that they can make shopping trips that take an hour instead of all afternoon.

Another crucial thing about the grid is that by running in all directions, it cuts across socioeconomic divides.  Low-income people can get out of their enclaves to reach both jobs and commercial services in more prosperous areas nearby.   (This frightens some people on the upper side of these divides, but it's one of the basic ways that good transit that's broadly useful creates paths out of poverty.)

(Remember: Most low-income people are busy!  They have to be frugal with time as well as money!)

Not all the "food deserts" can be healed with transit.  Some of the highlighted areas on the food desert map are in the northwest and northeast, outside of loop 610.  Low-income housing in this area takes many forms, but a lot of it is semi-rural, and the built environment is often very hostile to both pedestrians and efficient transit routing.  Some of these areas also have declining population.  Our plan does try to offer some options in these areas, but transit is not the primary solution to the food desert problem there.

But over a very diverse range of Houston, the way to get low-income people to decent healthy food is the way you achieve so many other benefits: environmental, economic, and social: an abundant frequent transit system, in a grid pattern, that reaches across all the parts of the city that are dense enough to support it.  

11 Responses to Frequent networks: escaping the “food desert”

  1. Ben G August 17, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

    1/2 mile seems like an awfully short distance for a grocery store. I walked 5.5 miles round trip to a farmer’s market (and some other shopping) in Vancouver BC today and it wasn’t a big deal. I’m renting a bike tomorrow to expand my reach across the city. I doubt I’ll take a bus while I’m here, even though the network seems quite decent. I’d rather get the exercise, feel the wind in my hair, and have better view of all the beautiful women 😉
    Why does everyone want “public transit” (implying buses and rail) to fill these short distance gaps? It’d be a lot cheaper to put in bike lanes / paths and encourage people to get around on bikes for such short distances. Healthier and more engaging with the environment and community, too.
    I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to redesign networks with poor geometry (especially when the reconfigured cost is on par with the old cost)… it’s just good to also consider how other modes of moving around can be a part of the solution.

  2. Tom West August 17, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    Ben G: These are people living *more* than half a mile from a grocery store. If you are carrying a week’s shopping (even for just yourself), walking more than half a mile in Texan heat is not fun, to put it mildly. This isn’t just a few nice items from the farmers’ market – this is everything you need for the week, including heavy things like milk, and bulky stuff like toilet roll/paper/tissue/[local term].
    In short, I think transit should be a realistic option to take you to and from a grocery store over half a mile away.

  3. Xavier Debidour August 18, 2014 at 1:33 am #

    @Tom West
    Be careful not assuming the same behavior for people walking as motorists :
    In my experience when walking (or using transit) you generally buy food several times a week in smaller quantities than if you had an automobile (and preferably on your way back home from work).

  4. Jim Moore August 18, 2014 at 3:39 am #

    Catching public transport just to buy your groceries sounds like a real time-consuming chore, as well as putting yourself at the mercy of the system and its inevitable incidents of unreliability, which only needs to happen once or twice before you swear never to put yourself in that position ever again. Follow the link below to see how the Dutch have deliberately planned to avoid food deserts and allow their people to get their groceries without relying on motorised transport.

  5. Alon Levy August 18, 2014 at 6:24 am #

    How much farther than 800 meters are these grocery stores? When I lived in Providence I was about a kilometer from the supermarket, along mostly walkable streets, and it was only mildly annoying. But living multiple kilometers away is a more serious issue.

  6. Steve Dunham August 18, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    I noticed that not owning a car was explained: “because of poverty, illness, or age,” implying that anybody who can own and drive a car wants one and drives one. In Houston, those who choose not to own a car may be a small minority (as they are in most of the United States), but they don’t even get a mention, as if not owning a car is a disability, and who would choose to be disabled?

  7. bw August 18, 2014 at 9:10 am #

    I think that chain supermarkets have created more food deserts. From what I have seen the larger chains seem to put the smaller neighborhood markets and even smaller chains out of business and then people have to travel farther to do their grocery shopping.

  8. calwatch August 18, 2014 at 11:17 am #

    Also lower income people sometimes prefer to travel longer distances to cheaper supermarkets/grocery stores. For example Winco and Walmart Supercenters can be a huge transit draw. Many convenience stores, like 7-Eleven, are starting to stock healthy snacks like bananas and apples but the selection is very limited.

  9. Sascha Claus August 20, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    Supermarkets are such transit draws that British ones (Tesco comes to mind) often come with small bus stations in their parking lot, at a size were a bus stop on the street for the routes passing through ought to be enough.

  10. John Gardosik August 28, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    I do wonder how National Geographic defines “supermarket” in this context. Some of those bubbles make me think they’re leaving off small local chains like La Michoacana and other carnicerias, Indian markets, Korean/Vietnamese/Chinese markets etc that do actually carry a good selection of fresh produce, meat and seafood and dry goods. I’ve seen too many of these maps that only count major chains (HEB, Kroger, Randall’s, Whole Foods.)

  11. Andre Lot September 5, 2014 at 7:38 pm #

    @Jim Moore: the sort of micro-detailed over-planning of neighborhood design of Dutch cities is just completely unacceptable for North American local political cultures. It would never be possible to implement without deranging into the worst forms of patronage and favoritism like it can be seen in places like San Francisco or New York.
    @bw: I don’t think chains have anything to do with that. In other countries with heavy presence of chains like Switzerland, UK, Netherlands, Denmark, there are different patterns of spatial distribution of supermarkets even if 3-4 chains completely dominate the business.
    @Ben G: I call your bluff on your statement, respectfully. If you can walk 5.5 miles to a market and come back carrying packages as if it is nothing, then you belong to a tiny minority of super athletic people who don’t sweat while virtually running back and front, or then you have a lot of disposable time such that you can waste 90-100 min walking as if it were nothing, consider the average speed threshold that starts to exert the body on a jogging pace.