Here’s another way sprawl eats up energy

The Atlantic ran an interesting story last week pointing out that Americans have the largest refrigerators in the world. Obviously that means we Americans are eating up a huge amount of energy.

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The ridiculously large fridge that came with my apartment. I look forward to replacing this thing, though unfortunately doing so will require me to remodel the cabinetry as well.

The article includes some interesting information about the background of refrigeration, but makes this important point:

Because the average American family goes grocery shopping once a week, a gigantic refrigerator is required to keep all the perishables they acquire on that trip. Household refrigerators differ greatly from country to country because the characteristics that citizens in different countries want in their refrigerators are reflections of their cultures so at this point in history once weekly shopping trips is an almost uniquely American habit. While Americans and Canadians want storage capacity, European countries are generally more concerned with energy efficiency or the cost of their operation.

In other words, infrequent trips to the grocery store force us to have big fridges.

That article doesn’t get very deep into the city-design-related causes of these infrequent grocery store trips, but they should be obvious: when the grocery store is much more than a half mile away, or when it requires a laborious car trip to reach, suddenly we visit less often. That means we have to buy more groceries during each trip.

By contrast, if there is a “grocery store” — or even just a corner shop — nearby, it’s suddenly cheaper and more convenient to pick up bread, meat, milk or whatever on the way home from work or school. And cheaper is the operative word; running a fridge 24/7 is expensive, but downsizing and picking up a fresh baguette every evening is not.

It’s also worth remembering that there are parts of the world where this sort of lifestyle is a reality. When I lived in Brazil I enjoyed picking up supplies in corners shops in several different cities, and I’ve visited other places where it’s possible as well. A couple of generations ago, this was even possible in my old Provo neighborhood.

The ultimate point is that we go to the grocery store infrequently now because the stores are too far away and because our suburban densities can’t support a lot of little grocery shops. This may be one of the more overlooked consequences of suburban sprawl, but it also shows that the problems of bad development are not limited to the usual culprits of bad heath, air quality, etc.

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