The City Wants to Corral Stray Carts With New Regulations

I don't know exactly what it means to be middle class, having been not-quite-middle-class my entire life. But I can tell if you live in a middle-class neighborhood.

If someone on your block routinely parks his car overnight on the lawn, you don't live in a middle-class neighborhood, or if an abandoned grocery store cart sits for more than four days at the curb at the end of your block.

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Front lawn parking is a local issue, but the state of California has one of the strictest cart theft laws in the nation, with a fine and possible jail time as deterrents. They've not worked. Retailers don't like arresting actual customers, cart in hand. Law enforcement agencies find better things to do.

As a result, abandoned carts from Vons and Costco gather at terminal points along the routes of the carless, including the neatly landscaped parkway panel that separates the end of my block from South Street.

In response to fears of creeping (or rolling) blight, some cities have imposed stricter stray cart regulations, including citing store owners whose shopping carts repeatedly turn up on city streets. Los Angeles has just adopted an even tougher ordinance. It requires storeowners to prevent the removal of their carts, either by automatically locking cart wheels at the edge of the parking lot or not allowing carts to leave the store at all.

The Los Angeles Times, in slightly snarky tones, thinks the city's stray cart ordinance is a bad idea. The editorial writer imagines a shopper -- loaded down with a purse, toddlers, and a cart full of groceries -- callously prevented by the new law from wheeling her cart to a bus stop. Where, of course, the cart would have to abandoned (as so many already are) to be collected eventually and at considerable expense by one of the retrieval services that retail associations employ.

The editorial writer isn't concerned just about the needs of a hypothetical bus passenger, however, but also about anti-business/anti-development over-regulation. Now that the city requires new and remodeled supermarkets and big box stores -- both cart-centric -- to limit straying, the city will have fewer Trader Joes and Bed Bath & Beyonds.

Besides, the editorial concludes, since the city is bad at dealing with abandoned junk generally, why obsess over shopping carts? They should, for the sake of shoppers, be left to roam free.

I'm not convinced, although I agree that the ordinance is far from perfect. It reaches down to stores that have as few as six carts. It doesn't touch existing stores, only new and substantially remodeled ones. And the technology to lock cart wheels costs as much $40,000 per store location.

Under the new ordinance, small grocery chains will be at a disadvantage competing with the chains with deeper pockets. Retailers planning to enter the highly competitive Los Angeles market may be put off by another start-up cost that current chains won't have to pay, because existing stores are "grandfathered." And the convenience of taking a cart partway home -- if theft can be considered a shopping amenity -- will decline.

I suspect, however, that the editorial's concern isn't the bus-dependent shopper or the cost of doing business in Los Angeles. "Those automatically locking wheels," laments the writer, "were once hallmarks of, you know, certain neighborhoods -- the ones where the grocery stores eyed their customers warily and let them know that they were probably the kinds of people who would steal shopping carts, roll them home and then abandon them on the street corner."

By keeping abandoned shopping carts out of neighborhoods that -- you know -- can only aspire to middle-class propriety, the city's new ordinance will make Gelson's and Trader Joes and Whole Foods look at lot more like markets in "certain neighborhoods" like mine where, of course, abandoned shopping carts belong naturally to the streetscape.

The root of the Times' anxiety about corralling stray carts isn't based on convenience or cost. It's all about class.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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