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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Gas Stations as Corner Stores

Planners talk about the mythical corner store. It is generally accepted wisdom that residents should all have a place within walking distance where they can buy that virtuous "quart of milk." Yet, ironically, it is often the very same planners who are hostile toward the businesses that actually serve this role in many communities throughout the country: gas stations.

Sit and watch for a while, and you will see some interesting things at many neighborhood gas stations. Interestingly, at such quintessentially auto-oriented businesses, there is often a surprising amount of pedestrian activity.

In many existing communities throughout America, I have seen more walking trips to gas station convenience marts than anywhere else in town. Even in some dense city neighborhoods, I have observed gas stations filling a role where urban poverty has left residents with few retail options. This is much more an indictment of poor overall development patterns than a recommendation for gas stations, yet improving existing places requires dealing with them on the terms of their actual assets. Bemoaning deficiencies does not build up a place.
The phenomenon of pedestrian trips to gas stations was something I first noticed at a Circle K on Van Buren Street in Avondale, Arizona a couple decades ago. Out in the hot climate on the western fringe of the Phoenix metro area, there was a steady stream of pedestrians coming and going from the store. 
A few years later, I had the experience of becoming a gas station convenience mart customer myself.  When I first moved in with my to-be wife, we found affordable accommodations in an apartment in a house in the Morris Park neighborhood in The Bronx. Within reach of the city by subway, the area was relatively suburban in character and local shopping options were limited.  It turned out that the gas station was not only the closest store to our apartment, it also had better prices than the nearby bodega for most items, and sometimes better than the larger, more distant supermarkets. This was especially true for beer (an item that young couples may often want to run out and replenish when entertaining friends).

I believe the stand-in role of gas stations convenience stores is due in part to the way density is typically treated in American suburbs and small towns. When apartments are treated as a sort of pariah, they are zoned out of the districts of single-family homes and generally located in or near the same commercial areas where gas stations locate. Additionally, gas stations are located on the same arterial streets as bus routes, making them a convenient stop for transit passengers. 
As a result, there is sometimes just a little more density and pedestrian traffic around the gas stations, creating a local population that walks to the convenience mart. 

Part of the picture is economic. These businesses are able to draw from a confluence of demand from two different markets: the motorists and the local residents. In effect, the auto-related uses and the additional mart customers drawn by those uses make the convenience store services viable where corner stores would otherwise be unable to perform financially.

If planners are serious about walking trips, they would do well to consider how to better integrate gas stations into residential neighborhoods. This would be a stark departure from knee-jerk assumptions that allowing auto-related uses automatically undermines walkability.

That would require more detailed studies of how gas stations and their stores really do fit into neighborhoods. Understanding the financial break-even points for corner stores would be useful to gauge when gas stations may be necessary to fill this embryonic role. More careful assessment of the urban design would be quite helpful as well.

The interruption of the streetscape is an obvious detraction from the pedestrian environment. The need to navigate busy traffic at the curb cuts appears to be a negative as well, although one that may be viewed worse than it is in practice. Watch pedestrians in these areas, and you will see that in many cases, they do not cross the driveways at all, but rather cut diagonally through the lot past the front of the store. Regulars may wave or even stop to chat for a moment with the attendant at the pumps (who are at times great sources of neighborhood gossip!). Improving the way gas stations interact with the sidewalks is important, but it is a more nuanced relationship than the generic prescription to just provide a street wall and locate the store entrance out at the corner.

The mundane locations that are part of a community's daily life can be very interesting places. For those who want to begin improving the quality of our lower density, less walkable, and often less affluent neighborhoods, gas stations should be of keen interest.

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