Durable Growth

Urbanism and the not-so-humble filling station

Historic filling station in downtown Pleasanton

Historic filling station in downtown Pleasanton

Gas stations, or whatever their future replacements might be, aren’t going to go away.  Much as there were livery stables until the dawn of the automotive age and gas stations since then, there will always be a need for places that fuel our personal transportation vehicles.  But that doesn’t mean that we should design our cities around them.

A 16-pump gas station was recently broached in Petaluma.  The concept elicited a range of responses.  Some argued that the location near the busiest intersection in town was wrong.  Others argued that the station would generate too much traffic.  Still more argued that an over-sized gas station, particularly one that might use gasoline as a loss-leader to attract customers for other goods, would be unfair competition for existing gas stations.  And those on the other side of the discussion argued that the public needs the lower gas prices the station is expected to offer.

Further complicating the picture, gas stations are a permitted use on the proposed site.  This means that, as long as the application conforms to all pertinent standards in the zoning ordinance, the applicant can develop “by right”.  The City may require changes in the site plan, but can’t deny the gas station.

Although many types of development can be done “by right”, it’s rare for all the pieces to fall into place.  In this case, many citizens are concerned that gas stations can be built “by right”.

In response to the furor, and particularly in response to the market competition issue, the City Council asked for staff to bring forward a draft resolution that would halt all gas station development for 45 days while the Council reconsiders the portions of the zoning code that cover gas stations.  Councilmember Mike Healy presented the case for a moratorium in an opinion piece written for the local newspaper.  Healy’s primary concern is the use of gasoline as a loss-leader.

Not surprisingly, the potential applicant disagrees with the moratorium idea, suggesting the possibility of legal action if a moratorium is imposed

Given the number of sides to the gas station situation, it’s an issue I can’t ignore.  And indeed, urbanism has perspectives to offer on gas stations.

However, I’ll stay away from several points.  I won’t address the particular issues around the proposed site or comment upon the current site plan.  I sit on a pair of City committees that may review the site plan and, by law, I’m not allowed to prejudge the site plan prior to the committee meetings.  (Furthermore, it’s likely that the site plan will be subject to fine-tuning before a submittal is made, so any comments I might offer would be on an outdated plan.)

Also, lacking the appropriate legal background, I won’t comment on the proposed moratorium.  I can see the logic in imposing a moratorium when zoning changes are imminent.  And I certainly support restricting the use of retail loss-leaders.  I believe retail loss-leaders are a major factor in the growth of the retail gigantism that undermines the life and the ledgers of our communities.  I remember when government took a hard line on loss-leader retail strategies.  I’m disappointed with the loss of emphasis on that point.

But I can also see the unfairness to an applicant who has spent time and resources preparing a submittal, only to have the doors of city hall slammed shut as he walks up the front steps.  I’m sure that bright minds have considered the balance of those two perspectives.  I needn’t add my under-informed voice.

But I can write in general about urbanism versus gas stations, especially outsized gas stations.

Recognizing the essential role of personal transportation vehicles in our world, urbanists specifically account for gas stations and other similar car services within an urbanist setting.  But understanding that gas stations, parking garage entrances, repair shops and their like don’t make for a comfortable pedestrian experience, good urban planning relegates those uses to secondary streets, preserving the pedestrian setting on primary streets.

Beyond that, urbanists grasp that personal transportation options have costs for which we fail to reflect in market pricing.   Among the costs for which we don’t properly incorporate are streets, parking, and, perhaps the most significant, the environmental and geopolitical implications of oil.

At this point, many will jump in to say, “But we pay property taxes for roads and the cost of parking is included in the prices we pay at the cash register.”

To which I ask, if you walk to the grocery store, do you get a discount because you didn’t use a parking place?  If your household only drives 6,000 miles per year, perhaps compared to a neighboring household which may drive 30,000, does your property tax bill go down?  If you, as many young adults are doing, choose to live without an automobile, are you absolved of your share of the cost of the infrastructure upgrades needed to accommodate climate change?  The answer to all three questions is, of course, no.  Which tells us that the lesser users of streets, parking, and gas are subsiding the greater users.

The only tax that’s somewhat correctly charged is the gasoline tax.  Yet it’s been allowed to lag so far behind the need for revenue that the gas tax trust fund is nearing bankruptcy at the same time our roads are in desperate need of maintenance.  (A vehicle mileage tax would be an even better approach to funding road maintenance, but we’re a long ways from accepting that concept.)

Against this backdrop of marketplace subsidies, we have the specter of over-sized gas stations, including the possibility of them selling gas below price to attract customers for other merchandise.  A gas station like that potentially creates flawed marketplace signals.

To buy lower-priced gas, a driver may go an extra mile and then idle in line for several minutes, burning 50 cents worth of gas to save two dollars at the pump.  From the driver’s perspective, especially if he doesn’t put a high value on his time, that transaction is reasonable.  But from the external perspective, where the general public picks up the road costs for the additional driving and the environmental costs of gasoline, that transaction is nonsense.

Some will now argue “But we need lower-priced gasoline to reach our homes and our places of work.  Paying any more for gas will break our household budgets.”  There’s much validity to that argument.  But only because we’ve conspired to play a sadistic joke on the folks who can afford it least.

Through reshaping our cities and housing practices to relegate many lower income folks to the urban fringes, we’ve made the people who can least afford it dependent on a commodity for which the artificially low price can no longer be maintained.  And the transition away from that paradigm will be neither quick nor painless.

Sure, if we choose to drill madly, to facilitate every technology for converting shale or tar sands into oil, and to continue to subsidizing streets and parking, we can probably sustain our current land-use patterns for another couple of decades.  But we’d only be increasing the deficit that we’re passing along to future generations.  I believe it’s time to stop breaking into piggy banks and to start behaving like adults.

To me, we need gas stations, preferably small gas stations located on side streets.  We don’t need giant gas stations on primary streets, especially if they may sell discounted gas.  And I’ll support any municipal effort, whether moratorium or zoning ordinance change, that moves us in that direction.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

8 comments to Urbanism and the not-so-humble filling station

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  • davistrain

    An interesting discussion. I go back to the days when Dad refueled the Chevy at the (literally) mom and pop gas station with the “visible pumps” (calibrated glass containers that would hold ten gallons), and now use computerized dispensers that take credit cards. I can think of several intersections near where I live in the Pasadena area that used to have four gas stations and now have one or none. In my home town of Monrovia, there’s a station that dates back to the 1930s–it hasn’t sold any fuel in decades, but is used as a movie location. Probably the best location for what many consider a necessary evil would be in industrial areas with little foot traffic.

    • Davistrain, I’d say industrial areas, secondary streets with a lesser pedestrian role, and at freeway off-ramps. (The last is to keep freeway drivers from having to wander into urban cores.) In a tech era, visibility of gas stations would seemingly be less important.

      The calibrated glass gas pumps are mostly before my time, although perhaps I remember a few last pumps of that type in the late 1950s. But I definitely remember when you went to gas stations for car repairs and new tires. Hence the term “service station” which now seems obsolete.

  • I’m an urbanist who generally agrees with your point of view, and admires your industrious blogging and community dedication. I even share some fond memories of those now-quaint gas stations, although I do recall the men who worked in them had a pretty tough, dirty life.

    But I disagree with your conclusion, because it is misplaced. If, as a matter of land-use policy, the city determined that motor vehicle fueling should occur on smaller, dispersed sites, then it should have said so in its General Plan and zoning. But it did not. The property owner, apparently, relied on the zoning in place at the time of application. Owner should be bound by the restrictions and receive the benefits of the rights of use as provided in the land use description, subject to reasonable conditions of approval.

    The City was free to reconsider its land-use policy at any time, but it waited until an application was placed before it. A moratorium on this particular category of land use, for whatever purported reason, seems manifestly unfair.

    On a less technical level, I also disagree that price competition, or cross-subsidies, should be a consideration in land-use policy. This is a role-of-government point of view, not a settled matter of law (although there are helpful cases and guidelines). Especially at the local level, government works best by encouraging competition, not by protecting one set of competitors. The planning profession reduces its stature as an impartial administrator when is strays into territory occupied by industrial policy. Isn’t is true that the Fotomat killed the drugstore photo counter? Oh dear – they’re both dead, killed by the smartphone. Local governments have better things to do than picking winners and losers in the retail game.

    Land-use policy should be guided not by guessing how commercial businesses will conduct themselves, but by sorting out the conflicts amongst the various land uses. In the case of gas stations, it seems obvious to zone them on the big arterials, and enjoy the sales tax not captured by the next town on the freeway. Keep them away from pedestrian-oriented districts, and focus on where the next generation will plug in their Teslas.

    • Steve, thanks for the comments. I agree with you on some, but let me offer a couple of dissensions.

      I agree it’d be a better world if cities could anticipate all eventualities in a general plan. But the many of key elements of the Petaluma General Plan were completed in 2005 and 2006, before the proliferation of mega gas stations. I think we can give City Hall a pass for not being prescient. Next, it’d be good if City Hall could have initiated a general plan amendment when the spectre of mega gas stations began to rise. But city halls are chronically short on funds, especially in the last few years. As a result, they generally manage by crisis. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, but we must accept either a crisis management form of government or the public interest being ill-served.

      Also, to be clear, a moratorium wouldn’t have necessarily precluded the land use, only imposed a 45-day cooling off period for the City Council to consider new rules.

      Also, I don’t see a loss-leader prohibition as government deciding the winners. My understanding is that loss-leading is clearly prohibited by law, but only rarely enforced because of a lack of government resources. And the loss-leading is prohibited because the public is harmed if competition is lop-sided. So enforcing a loss-leader prohibition isn’t picking winners, it’s ensuring a level playing for competition.

      Lastly, I chuckled at your use of the term “industrious”. I’d prefer “eloquent and persuasive”, fear “stolid and pedantic”, and accept “industrious” as something in between.