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When driving on the rural byways of the rural Midwest one will find gas stations scarce. But if you look closely enough, in every town, down to the tiniest of unincorporated ones, you will find a place where a gas station once was. Sometimes the building is still there either being used for another propose or simply derelict. Sometimes the lot is empty and the only remaining trace is a small, oval-shaped concrete divider which obviously supported a gas pump at one time.

In the larger towns with more than about 3000 residents the small gas stations have been replaced by larger convenience store gas stations. But in the smaller towns the gas stations have disappeared altogether with no fuel available at all.

If anything our consumption of petroleum has increased by many times. When did these stations begin disappearing? What happened in the oil industry or American culture that made these businesses no longer viable?

  • As sort of a footnote, it seems the process may still be ongoing, even with the convenience store type stations. In the last few months three of the stations that I frequent shut down. One in the city, one at the edge of the city on the highway out of town and one in a small town. All three of which were very busy, but suddenly and inexplicably closed their doors – Tom Jul 29 '16 at 23:02
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    Given a choice of going to a gas-only station, or one with an attached qwiki-mart, where do you go? Given a choice between a qwiki-mart and filling up while/before/after buying groceries where do you go? and chains make bulk buying cheaper and more profitable. Where is the question here? Why have 5andDimes disappeared? Single owner book stores? Small single city food stores? Towns used to fight against BigBoxStores, now they fight FOR them. True sadness is bookstores got forced out by chains, who have themselves closed, leaving... nothing.... – CGCampbell Jul 29 '16 at 23:51
  • While the causes might be different, the same thing (i.e. closure of rural gas stations) is also occuring in the UK as documented here – Steve Bird Jul 29 '16 at 23:59
  • And also in Japan. – Steve Bird Jul 30 '16 at 0:00
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    And also in Germany. One reason are more restrictive environment regulations and small gas stations don't have the possibility to fulfill all of them. – knut Jul 30 '16 at 11:10
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Why have rural gas stations vanished? Because business conditions have changed: my grandfather built a small gas station in 1921 at Six Mile and Livernois, near Detroit, on a corner of his father's farm.

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In those days tires needed to be patched or replaced every thousand miles or so, and there were many other small services that had to be performed on every vehicle. My grandfather had been trained as a mechanic, courtesy of the US Army, with years of service between 1914 and 1920. In those days every gas station also had a mechanic, and it was typically owned and operated by the same person.

This business model changed in the 1950/1960 time period, with the rise of large-volume, corporate-owned service stations. This was partially due to the rise of the Interstate highway system, but also by the improved reliability of the automobiles driven by the public.

Today it is uncommon to find a service station with a garage and a mechanic, and for most of us we seldom have to change a tire - the tread is good for 40,000 or more miles. Up until 1960 3,000 miles was a good tire, then it went flat, you took it off, patched the inner tube, pumped it up, put it back on, and off you went. But I haven't had to replace a tire while driving ... for a very long time, probably since 1975.

So to summarize:

  1. Stations used to be run by owner/operators
  2. Automobiles required fuel and service, and at much more frequent intervals
  3. Improved gas mileage requires fewer fueling stations, and further apart
  4. Progress has a price

In addition, many operations became nonviable during WW II due to the fuel and tire shortages, which lead to their closures.

  • I think there's a lot to this. Today cars are just far more reliable, and we've worked out ways to make refueling not even require a clerk in most cases. For example, it seemed to me last time I visited there were a lot more independent stations in New Jersey, where state law bans self-service stations. – T.E.D. Jul 30 '16 at 21:17
  • Oregon also bans self service, though this may be changing in the rural counties - which make up most of Oregon. But this doesn't change the number of service stations, only the cost of operation. – Peter Diehr Jul 30 '16 at 21:27
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    Just a note that the Oregon ban was repealed in 2017. – Steven Burnap Feb 13 '18 at 16:42
  • Far cry from what's there today. I lived three blocks away in the '60s and '70s. – Matt Balent Feb 13 '18 at 18:11
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    Google says there's still a gas station at the intersection of Six Mile and Livernois. It's just a Marathon station rather than a Red Crown one. – Mark Feb 14 '18 at 3:17
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Chain stores (franchises or otherwise aligned with chains) do deals with the oil companies and the owner operator is offered worst deals. The chain stores have advantages in gas price (which could be sold at a loss and the other stuff marked up ) which eventually drives the gas only and/or independent owner operated businesses out of businesses.

  • Agree with this...although oil companies can only "do so much." It's Wall Street and then petro dollar that pulled the plug on the mom and pop shop...with a lot of Government regulation to "help out." On the other hand as US oil...and with it food...production begins to surge many of these "relics" will see a return to life as the "automobile" is going nowhere...nor are the highways they drive on. – Doctor Zhivago Jul 30 '16 at 18:51
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One other reason for the disappearing gas station is - vehicles have become far more reliable, and far less demanding of routine maintenance. Most of those mom and pop stations made their real money on maintenance and repair. Which is why they've been replaced by mini-markets.

Even into the early 70's, tires would last maybe 20k miles, and were far more prone to punctures. The onset of radial tires plus increased content of carbon black in tires now gives them upwards of 80k mile life, and it's extremely rare to get a flat any more, so much so that the full size spare tire in a car is now quite rare.

Spark plugs used to last maybe 10k miles. Thanks to unleaded fuel, they now last over 100k miles.

Same with brakes... 20k-30k miles used to mean a complete brake overhaul. Today... 100k on the original brakes is not uncommon.

Electronic ignitions eliminate another high maintenance point of pre 1980's cars: points and condensers.

For that matter, cars themselves tend to last longer. A pre-1970 car, at 100k miles, was expected to be in need of an engine overhaul. The interval was shorter for air cooled engines like the VW Beetle. Today, the better cars can go over 200k miles with no major engine work.

The one maintenance issue that's still regular is oil changes, which is why we see instant oil change outlets everywhere.

  • Good point. Even the oil is better, though. The standard change interval was 3000 miles. Now they're usually 5000. My Nissan owner's manual puts it at 7500 miles with synthetic oil. – Tom Feb 15 '18 at 20:34
  • Plus, I don't know if I'd trust the mechanics at an old-style service station to know how to fix newer cars. You really need specialized training to do things right with 21st century cars – Tom Feb 15 '18 at 20:39
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The EPA requirements put most mom & pop gas stations out of business LUST= Leaking Underground Storage Tanks = lots of contamination

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    Can you provide some sources which would correlate the increase of EPA regulation with the decrease in the number of small service stations? – justCal Feb 13 '18 at 15:26
  • Seems an unlikely explanation...why a big corporate station move in to where the mom & pop went out of business? – Steven Burnap Feb 13 '18 at 16:43
  • @Steven Burnap: But "move in" isn't part of the original question: It's why there are few rural gas stations any more. For stations in larger towns, the corporations have the capital to replace those leaking tanks & install upgraded pumps (and have other economies of scale), IF the location is potentially profitable enough, which the more rural stations usually aren't.. There's also the matter of branding: you could also ask why national fast-food chains have largely replaced local mom & pop places. – jamesqf Feb 13 '18 at 18:57
  • newsday.com/classifieds/cars/… That is a news article where a county mandated gas station tank replacement and it put a lot of mom and pop gas stations out of business. State goverments and the EPA have had similar laws to. – exploregis Feb 14 '18 at 3:59
  • @jamesqf Btw, in the smaller towns I go to, the ones with no gas stations, the fast food chains have not supplanted the local restaurants. Each town still has the one little diner/store on the main street. Many have been there for several generations. Fast food requires a whole lot of business to be viable – Tom Feb 15 '18 at 20:44

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