By now you’ve probably heard of electric-vehicle “range anxiety,” where drivers worry they’ll run out of power before they can get to a charging station. If your vehicle propels itself by blowing up liquefied dinosaur remains you might feel smug but maybe you shouldn’t; range anxiety might be lurking for gas-powered cars, too.
Why? Because gas stations are disappearing.
Year – N.H. stations with stores – stations without stores – TOTAL
2007 – 527 – 118 – 645
2011 – 499 – 106 – 605
2016 – 475 – 63 – 538
Source: Census.gov American Factfinder
If it wasn’t for cigarettes, lottery tickets and unhealthy food the number would be a lot lower. Of that 2016 total, 475 had attached convenience stores and only 63 were old-fashioned stations that survive on gas sales and repairs. Such “service stations” seem to be an endangered species: The number of New Hampshire stations that lack convenience stores has fallen at almost twice the rate of those with the stores.
I don’t have more recent data – current state environmental data doesn’t differentiate between gas stations and fueling depots for fleets such as buses and delivery trucks – yet there’s no reason to think the long, slow decline has ended.
There’s no gas station anymore in my town, for example, or in the town to our north or the town to our west, and only one in the town to our east. Even the regional business center to our south has seen some stations shut since I’ve lived there.
New Hampshire is not alone, either. The number of gas stations in the country has fallen from a 1994 peak of 203,000 to about 111,000 in 2016. That’s a decline of almost one-half, although it’s not evenly spread out. The concentration of closures is in big cities, where the cost of land is high, and in rural areas, where the cost of tanker deliveries is high.
What’s behind the fall? Not competition from electric cars or ride-sharing or anything high-techy like that, because it long predates them. Part of it might be stagnant sales because of more efficient vehicles and fewer miles driven due to the 2008 recession, but those trends have ended without helping station owners much.
Judging from years of news reports – I found “why are America’s gas stations closing?” stories as far back as 2013 – the cause is purely economic. The profit margin of gasoline sales is tiny no matter what the cost at the pump, especially for smaller independent dealers.
A contributing factor is the weird requirement for large signs of per-gallon prices (why is this mandated for gasoline and diesel but not anything else?), which creates a frenzy of price competition.
The pumps at my town’s general store were killed by low profit margins; it wasn’t worth the cost to keep them. The problem was compounded because the storage tank held 1,000 gallons, so small that eventually only one distributor would serve it and the per-gallon cost was very high. Installing a new tank would have been prohibitively expensive because of environmental regulations.
Another factor is consolidation in the service station and convenience store industries. When two companies become one, as is happening at a furious pace, some duplicate stations often close.
So expect to keep seeing the number of gas stations shrink. And while that is a hassle, there is a bright side.
If you are concerned about New Hampshire’s water then it’s a good thing that fewer places are storing tons of cancer-causing flammable liquid inside tanks (which can leak) and pipes and pumps (which can leak) refilled from tanker trucks (which can crash and leak). And if you’re concerned about the climate then it’s a good thing to make it less convenient for us to spend our lives inside two-ton pollution boxes.
And if you own an electric vehicle, you’re probably chuckling. Unlike us internal-combustion-engine schlubs, you can fill up at home any time you feel like it – no need to add a side trip to the local commercial strip just to stand around in the cold and end up with your hands smelling like petroleum distillate.
Range anxiety, indeed.