Cities are banning new gas stations. More should join them | Nathan Taft

Whether or not we’ve all realized it, the era of gasoline-powered cars is rapidly winding to a close – and with it, gas stations and the pollution they bring to communities.

People are tired of being forced to pay obscene amounts of money for fuel every time there’s an international incident. Meanwhile, the cost of battery tech is just 10% of what it was a decade ago, and is expected to continue dropping as the decade wears on. And just this month the Biden administration announced its plan for making EV charging stations accessible across the US.

Climate change concerns have led to governments in California, Canada and the EU mandating an end to new gas car sales by 2035, while other places are going even further and implementing sales bans as soon as 2030 or even 2025. Car companies like GM, Mazda, Volvo and others see the writing on the wall and are following suit by setting dates for when their last gasoline vehicles will be sold.

And now, local governments are taking action as well.

In 2021, Petaluma in California became the first city in the world to prohibit new gas stations. Since then, at least four more cities have prohibited new gas stations permanently and at least six more (including Los Angeles, the city of cars!) are developing policies now. Much as in 2019, when Berkeley kicked a wave of cities passing building electrification policies, the movement to stop new gas stations has arrived – and local elected officials everywhere would be wise to take notice.

With 80% of gas stations on track to be unprofitable by 2035, allowing new stations to be built is simply a bad investment for any city or county. And that’s before you even consider that the cost of remediating a gas station site ranges from tens of thousands to more than $2m, with an average cost of $243,299 a site. Have fun explaining that to constituents.

Why does it cost so much? Because gas stations, by their very nature, are environmental hazards. Of the 450,000 hazardous brownfield sites in the US, the EPA says that about half are contaminated by petroleum, with much of it coming from leaking underground tanks from old gas stations.

These hazards aren’t limited to tank leaks or after the gas station is no longer in use. While in operation, gas stations pose serious risks to the health of people in nearby homes, businesses, and schools. Gas stations emit dangerous levels of the known carcinogen benzene and ozone, which causes respiratory problems and asthma.

And (surprise!), these problems are encountered far more often by lower-income residents and people of color. Building new gas stations locks us into another 30 to 40 years of all of the above.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that most local governments can stop this problem from spreading by prohibiting new gas stations with some relatively easy updates to their zoning code (as many officials are already in the process of doing). In an indication of how this policy area is gathering momentum, since March of this year, gas station prohibition policies have passed in Rohnert Park and Sebastopol, California, and policies are under development in at least six other places in the US and Canada right now.

Along with our allies at Congas and Coltura, Safe Cities is working with local officials to protect their constituents by providing them with template ordinances and any other resources they may need to join the movement.

Regardless of what lens you look at it through – economic, public health, climate, equity or something else – new gas stations are terrible for cities and counties.

The question now isn’t whether or not change is coming, it’s who’s going to be left holding the bag. Savvy local elected officials won’t let it be their community.


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