Monday, March 3, 2014

Urbanism and the Not-So-Humble Filling Station

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 (

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