Last month, Lyft and Martha’s Table announced a six-month partnership to provide low-income residents in Wards 7 and 8 with low-cost rides to the grocery store. The pilot program, which starts this month, will include 500 families. To qualify, a family must have a child enrolled in an elementary school in either ward.
Grocery store access has been an issue in Wards 7 and 8 for quite some time. The two wards only have three grocery stores serving more than 145,000 residents (four if you include the one just over the district line in Prince George’s County). Thankfully there's another one on the way in Ward 8.
Right now if you live in Barry Farms in Ward 8, for example, you are 1.8 miles from the nearest grocery store. While Barry Farms is within 0.6 miles of the Anacostia Metro Station and the Giant Food is about 0.5 miles from the Congress Heights Metro Station, the journey is still anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. Should it really take that long in a city as dense as DC to get to the nearest grocery store?
In 2017, residents staged a “Grocery Walk” to highlight the distances people in Wards 7 and 8 must walk to get groceries. According to the DC Policy Center, more than 40% of households in Ward 8 are carless. These residents must either make small purchases they can carry easily, or rely on more expensive convenience stores. Many other residents are elderly or disabled, meaning they may not be able to get to a grocery store at all, regardless of the mode of transit available.
Lyft’s pilot program allows eligible residents to call a car and get groceries. It’s better than promoting car ownership, but it’s also a band-aid solution because it doesn’t fix the two underlying issues: there aren’t enough grocery stores which has created food insecurity, and the city should focus on transit and not car usage as the primary mode of getting around.
If residents East of the Anacostia had more stores, they would be able to walk to get their groceries. If they had better better routes, stops, shelters, and better Metrorail service they could get to the existing stores faster and easier. Cars could then be used more sparingly by those who don’t have other options.
While the area's bus routes definitely aren’t perfect, people are using them. ANC 7D Commissioner Justin Lini pointed out that the older, low-income residents who need better transit service to get to the grocery store aren’t typically using Lyft or Uber, and there are fewer young residents (who are more likely to use Lyft or Uber) who grocery shop in Wards 7 and 8.
The solution that would be most long-lasting would be to improve the current bus service and to explore alternatives like express routes to grocery stores. These low-cost Lyft rides are a short-term benefit. They have the potential to help certain people during a certain timeframe, but also to normalize cars as being a real solution when they aren’t.
“I am incredibly wary of anything that breaks attention away from expanding transit service,” said Editorial Board member Alex Baca. “I think Lyft’s initiative will make a difference in individual lives, but we should be critical of what this means in the broader scope of how public transportation is valued and prioritized by our elected officials.”
Part of good urbanism is considering how different people have different needs. Cars do have a use sometimes. It isn’t easy to haul groceries by public transit or bike to begin with, as anyone who has had to do so can attest. For many residents, including those with disabilities or children, it is impractical or infeasible.
The issue isn’t with Lyft or with Martha’s Table. It seems both organizations are doing this with good intentions, and this absolutely will help people. But it's a stop-gap. A long term solution would find ways to build grocery stores directly in the neighborhoods that need them, and ensure the city's transit network makes driving a car unnecessary.