The first drive-up gas station explicitly built to service automobiles opened in 1913. According to NACS Advancing Convenience & Fuel Retailing, at the time, approximately 500,000 vehicles across the U.S. navigated almost exclusively gravel or dirt roads. As of 2019, statistics show there were more than 276 million vehicles operating on roadways (mostly pavement) throughout the U.S., and over 40 million vehicles fuel up every day.
Despite the phenomenal growth in the use of automobiles, the number of gas stations has been in decline in recent decades. From 1994 to 2013, the number of retail-fueling facilities in the U.S. dropped by 25 percent, from 202,800 to 152,995. By the year 2015, the number had declined further to about 150,000.
The impact has created a glut of abandoned gas stations across the country. With several significant trends working against them, the local gas station may be heading down the same path as the neighborhood bookstore, sporting-goods store, and soda fountain: a mere fading memory of the 21st century.
Here are 19 photos and sad facts behind America’s abandoned gas stations.
19 Victims Of High Land Values In Urban And Suburban Areas
The revitalization of cities in the U.S. has attracted wealth and increased the demand for urban property. In many cities, like New York, the best use for a gas station site is an office development or a condominium. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of gas stations in the city fell by a third—to just 39.
The New York Times reported, “Today there is not a single operating gas station left on the city’s East Side from the southern tip of the island to 23rd St.”
18 Competition From Costco And Walmart
In the 1990s, warehouse retailers like Costco and grocery store chains like Walmart began selling gasoline at their store locations across the U.S.
These vast chains that sell in volume run on low margins, putting pressure on mom-and-pop grocers, retailers, and low-volume gas stations to compete. Many of the small gas stations went out of business.
17 Reduced Travel On Interstates And Small Highways
Route 66 was an American TV series starring Martin Milner and George Maharis that told the adventures of two companions stopping in small towns while traveling across the country in a Corvette in the early 60s.
Modern-day freeways and interstate highways have replaced roads like Route 66 all over the country, all but eliminating passing vehicles needing to stop for gas.
16 Improved Fuel-Efficiency Of U.S. Vehicles
The American vehicle fleet is going green. While much is discussed about the energy and fuel savings that hybrids and electric vehicles realize, the other types like SUVs, coupes, sedans, roadsters, and pickup trucks are quietly making an impact on fuel sales. It is not uncommon for an SUV to get 30 mpg highway or a compact car 40 mpg. Typical new vehicles are now about 20 percent more fuel-efficient than their early 2000 predecessors.
15 Changing Driving Patterns Of U.S. Drivers
According to research by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and a follow up state-by-state study, average vehicle miles driven per person reached a peak in 2004 before declining by 7.4 percent by the end of 2012.
Americans are now driving no more miles than they did in 1995, and when they do drive, it is done in cars that get better gas mileage.
14 An Aging Population
Studies show that Americans between the ages of 35 and 54, those in the prime of their career and active as parents, drive more than other age groups (it’s easy to rack up the miles acting as a taxi driver to all the kid’s events).
Now that the Baby Boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) is entering retirement, the number of older Americans that drive less has increased dramatically, up from 11 percent of the population in 1980 to 21 percent by 2040.
13 Lower Employment And Fewer Goods Moving Around The Country
When the economy slows down, fewer people work, product sales decline, and less goods move around the country. As a result, vehicles travel fewer miles and new car sales slow down. These factors, combined with high prices at the gas pump, encourage Americans of all ages to use public transportation, which reduces the consumption of gasoline.
12 Current Strict Environmental Regulations
Gas Station Underground Storage Tanks (UST) are highly regulated by the EPA to assure that leaks, spills, and overfills do not occur. UST systems contain hazardous and toxic chemicals that threaten human safety and health as well as the environment.
The cost of compliance with EPA rules has encouraged some gas station owners to abandon the business.
11 Natural Gas As An Alternative To Gasoline
Until recently, gasoline was the only fuel used for transportation. However, it is slowly being replaced by other sources, none of which require a gas station for delivery.
Natural gas is one alternative. Thanks to fracking, liquefied natural gas and compressed natural gas are inexpensive and abundant. The fuel is used primarily for fleets.
10 The Impact Of Electric Vehicles
Although the proliferation of electric cars in America is currently low, the growth is gaining momentum, and the potential is far greater than any other alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles. In the first quarter of 2019, sales of EVs in the U.S. alone exceeded 61,000 units.
While electric cars need charging stations, they don’t require any services from a gas station.
9 The Future Threat Of Autonomous Vehicles
Although the use of autonomous vehicles seems well into the future, recent developments by the major U.S., Japanese, and European car manufacturers, as well as research organizations, have made significant progress.
Eventually, many people may not own cars but subscribe to a mobility service that operates fleets of autonomous vehicles (most likely electric). Autonomous vehicles won’t need gas stations.
8 Future Environmental Protection Agency Regulations
The prospect is high that the Environmental Protection Agency will enforce new mandatory minimum vehicle mileage limits and offer new incentives for alternative fuel vehicles.
The government push will further consolidate the gasoline industry. Experts predict gas stations will be forced out of cities and concentrated near highway off-ramps. Walmart, Costco, and other mass-market retailers that sell gas at low margins will benefit.
7 The Oil Crisis Of 1973-1974
When the oil embargo began in October 1973, oil prices instantly jumped from $3 per barrel to $12. Massive gas shortages followed, resulting in fear and panic by the gasoline-consuming public. Some gas stations served their regular customers by appointment only. Others closed altogether, while businesses shut off electricity to save energy.
Very few of the gas stations abandoned during the 1973-74 fuel crisis were reopened, although some were used for other purposes.
6 Improved Public Transportation
According to the American Public Transportation Association, nearly 6,800 organizations deliver systems of transport in the United States. Since 1997, ridership has increased by 21 percent —a higher growth rate than the U.S. population during the same period.
In 2018, Americans took 9.9 billion trips on public transportation, including new bus networks, light-rail systems, bicycles, and airlines.
5 Lack of Quality-Trained Technicians
Small gas stations and vehicle repair shops have a difficult time hiring and keeping quality trained mechanics and technicians. The lack of good help puts them at a competitive disadvantage with dealerships that can offer the best techs formal training, higher salaries, and better benefits. Auto repairs are a source of profit for gas stations, but only if they can win customers with quality service.
4 Survival Difficult Without A Convenience Store
Sales from a gas station convenience store represent as much as 50 percent of total revenue and the source of the highest profit margin for a gas station. The reduction in the purchase of gasoline means customers visit less frequently, which negatively impacts convenience store purchases. In many cases, the sales of candy, sandwiches, potato chips, and sodas are essential to survival.
3 Competition From Repair Garages
Not only must gas stations compete against other gas stations and mass marketers like Walmart and Costco for a dwindling customer base, they also compete against small auto repair shops that don’t sell gasoline.
Cities have car dealerships with repair facilities and an abundance of small auto shops that vie for the profitable repair business. Gas stations cannot survive selling low-margin gasoline alone.
2 Poor Management
Poor management will spell disaster for any business no matter the industry, but gas stations seem to be hurt more from owners who lack good business skills than most industries. Even in locations and markets with good opportunities for profit, some gas stations manage to lose money.
In addition, many auto businesses are started with high-interest financing, and the burden to repay lenders prevents the owners from making a profit.
1 Competition From Car Dealerships
Car repair customers are often reluctant to take a vehicle in need of expensive repairs to a gas station mechanic. Dealerships are perceived as providers of quality service by highly trained technicians, while doubts exist about the quality of gas station repair services.
Gas stations and auto repair shops often depend on dealers as a source for parts. If they fall behind on payments or they take business away from the dealership, these shops may find it challenging to acquire much needed new parts.
Sources: thedailybeast.com, nps.gov, convenience.org, pdicstoreessentials.com
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