Veggie carts, pharmacy carts, beer carts: PDX's coming sidewalk retail paradise

This guest post is by Michael Andersen of Portland Afoot, PDX's 10-minute newsmagazine about buses, bikes and low-car life.

If Portland successfully builds a city of 20-minute neighborhoods, it'll do more than just make us all happier, healthier and safer.

It'll make middle-class consumers walk more. It'll kill auto-oriented businesses that don't adapt – and create opportunities for entrepreneurs who do.

In this third post of my series for WPC about the pedestrianization of Portland retail, let's think about what successful sidewalk-oriented businesses might look like.

Here's what I think: They'll look like food carts.

Creative Commons food cart photo by Flickr user Johnjoh.

Food carts, which cluster into pods that function as the food courts of Portland's Transit Mall, are the signs of a city that's shifting away from automobiles – and not just because they're usually located on a former parking space. They require a vibrant sidewalk culture (to turn a profit, a cart pod needs about 75 to 100 passers-by per cart per day) but their low-overhead business model lets them survive on a fraction of the sales volume of, say, a McDonalds (1,400 visits per weekday).

Unlike strip malls and big-box stores, a successful food cart doesn't need to lure patrons from miles away. It just needs to lure in the neighborhood.

I stole this insight from my colleague Chris Smith, a Portland planning commissioner and one of Portland's savviest transportation thinkers. In the first post of an insightful trilogy about what makes food carts work, Smith asked a fascinating question:

"How many of the essential services for a neighborhood could be delivered via a cart?"

A tobacco shop? A farmer's market? A tool library? A pharmacy? A copy shop … or, ten years from now, a 3-D printing station?

A bar?

At the time, I wrote in a comment to Chris that neighborhood watering holes, the anchor of most 20-minute neighborhoods, would never get past zoning boards. Oops. As Portland's consumer habits shift along with its commuting habits over the next 30 years, here's to many more pleasant, profit-generating surprises to come.

The April issue of Portland Afoot's 10-minute newsmagazine ranks the metro area's best employers for low-car commuters. WPC supporters can subscribe for $10 a year with coupon code WPCWALKS.

Creative Commons food cart photo by Flickr user Johnjoh.