Air

Correct tire pressure is a good thing. It will give you consistent performance, better mileage, and increased safety. When I was a kid, Dad checked the tire pressure pretty much every time we filled up the tank of the old Buick. He carried a pen shaped gauge in the glove compartment.

Years ago, a therapist asked me what I remembered about my Dad. I said, “Not much.” He then proceeded to help me remember not by the usual, it’s his fault you are all messed up approach, but by gently easing me to a place where memories like this one about the tire pressure gauge came back to me. This was one of the nicest gifts anyone ever gave me. If you are a regular reader, apart from being amazingly unique, you will notice that Dad gets a fair share of mentions.

Now if the old Buick needed a bit of a tire pressure boost, the gas station had an air hose right there to do the trick. Sometimes the air hose was located right in the same island with the gas tanks.

Why am I writing about this?

I have always been a car guy, check out My Favorite Car. Today, I am driving another of my favorite cars and always like to make sure the tire pressures are correct.

The other morning I set out for brunch, stopped for gas and found that the “gas station” had no air hose. Actually calling it a gas station is clearly a misnomer. At least using the benchmark of the fifties referenced above. Today most places to buy gas are actually convenience stores that also sell gas. There are no mechanics, no garage bays, you can’t get an oil change or a small repair done, and you can’t get air. If they do have air, it is dispensed by a regulated device (usually broken) and costs money.

Notice these convenience stores are deceptively branded with the large oil companies brands making them look like what some of us think are gas stations.

What happened between the gas station of the fifties and the convenience store version of today? Did the business model of the old time gas station break down? In conversations I have had with gas station owners over time, I learned that the margin on selling gas is very small. Repairs are where the money is. Without a good mechanic, the gas station owner was hurting for revenue. I guess it is easier to have some kid sell soda pop and unhealthy snacks than to have a mechanic.

Then there was the change in the road infrastructure. The Interstate Highway system had not been started in the days of the old Buick. Actually, it was authorized in 1956 and took 35 years to finish. When we went from my home town of Keene, NH to visit my grandparents in Utica, NY, we drove mostly on two lane highways and through lots of little and big towns and cities.

If we were hungry we stopped in a small town at some Mom and Pop diner. If we needed gas, a locally owned gas station. If we needed to go to the bathroom, well, the side of the road was the most likely stopping place.

As the Interstate Highway system was built out and other major, divided highways were built, along came the rest stop. They had gas, bathrooms, and food. This is where the convenience store selling gas notion came from.

Now, all these big highways are not the worst thing considering the increase in economic mobility, the time savings for a trip, and the wide ranging that is possible. Along these big highways, the convenience store selling gas notion is a pretty good one. That is, if you like soda and unhealthy snacks and don’t need air.

Now when a gallon of gas costs over $10 we will have another problem but that is too big a topic for me at this moment.

Now, why, in my little home town, do we have these convenience store things downtown? On our main street, there is a Cumberland Farms. It is the exact same building that you would find out on the highway system. It probably put at least four or five local businesses out of business: a gas station, a small grocery store or two, a coffee shop, and a newsstand. Another interesting thing is that if you are a pedestrian, and being downtown there are a few of those, there is no way to walk into this convenience store without crossing car lanes. In other words, this is completely a building that belongs on a major highway, not downtown.

In all of the strip malls that started to go in in the fifties and now dominate the edges of our little city, we have the other convenience store/gas stations, with NO air for your tires. Another bunch of locally owned gas stations and small grocery stores out of business.

I guess that the city lusted for the tax dollars that the developers, most from out of town, promised when they approved these projects. What happened is the developers made their money, cashed out and disappeared. The strip malls and Cumberland Farm like convenience stores are now mostly owned by folks from out of town who bought them from the developers. They are trying to wring as much profit out of these assets as they can with little or no incentive to reinvest in the community. Their incentive is to take as much economic value out of the community as they can.

What’s the economic effect of this kind of development? Many studies have been done and they all come with numbers like the following:

  • For every $100 in consumer spending with a local firm, $68 remains in the local economy.
  • For every $100 in consumer spending with a chain firm, $43 remains in the local economy.
  • For every square foot occupied by a local firm, local economic impact is $179.
  • For every square foot occupied by a chain firm, local economic impact is $105.

So we have very under leveraged dollars being spent in many different places every day.

What do I mean by under leveraged? It is a question of a multiplier. In economics the multiplier effect is when an increase in some economic activity starts a chain reaction that generates more activity than the original increase. Looking at the numbers above, the $25 difference between chain and local stores is the increase in economic activity that would stay in our little city if folks bought from local firms. It is the local multiplier.

To think, all of this started because I could not find a source of air to fill my tires. We must be observant as we move thorough the world that we have created so we can fully understand the implications of the environment that we have built.

Let’s go back to free air and all that it implies.

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