Kozlowski: Petromania

By Mark Kozlowski

Ask someone what he thinks the most important things in the United States are. He might answer with abstract ideas, like freedom, justice and democracy. He might talk about the documents that solidified these ideas and use phrases like “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” He might even talk about MTV or VH1. Of course, there is one reply that might be a bit more unexpected:

Gas stations.

While gas stations might seem dull and drab compared to the National Archives and the contents therein, it is precisely this ordinary omnipresence that make them so vital to American life. Though access to a filling station is not constitutionally guaranteed, and gas stations are far from scenic, it is time we consider the central role of these humble cornerstones of modern life.

While trying to avoid getting hit playing live-action “Frogger” on Fifth Avenue this year, you might notice a few cars on the road. The car has a central place in popular culture: Songs feature cars, cars are advertised all over television and the 16th birthday — when youth can finally obtain their driver’s licenses — is hyped out of control. Americans simply love to drive. I suggest that those who remain skeptical of the car’s importance to society sit down with a bunch of men and see what they talk about other than women or sports.

The numbers also suggest that Americans do more than just talk about cars. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2006, passenger cars covered 1.7 trillion miles, compared with only 6.6 billion miles by commercial airliner and 4.7 billion by all forms of public transportation. In short, we could give all users of public transportation a 360-year head start, and car-riders would still travel farther in a year. On the macabre side, there were 42,708 fatalities caused by cars in 2006, which means auto-related accidents were the 10th leading cause of death that year.

Cars need gas and maintenance, which makes gas stations just as necessary as the vehicles they fuel. Granted, gasoline could be sold exclusively at hardware stores as it was before the drive-in station, but this is not convenient. Inter-city travel — made easier by interstates and automobiles — would be more difficult and less frequently engaged in if not for the gas station. And the “call of the open road” is much less romantic when answering that call requires you to push the car.

However, independent of the automobiles it keeps topped off with fuel, the gas station has connotations in and of itself. It is a friendly and familiar sight in unfamiliar places and unfriendly circumstances. It can be an outpost or marker of civilization: If you come to a town, or even a crossroads without a gas station in sight, you know you are really out in the boonies. If you get into trouble along the road, what is your objective? To find a gas station! If you need a bathroom, a Twinkie, a cup of coffee or a map, you don’t look for signs leading you to the National Archives.

In another sense, gas stations of the United States are a unifying presence. Perhaps not as unifying as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but bear with me. Both the tofu-munching, long-haired, pot-smoking, Prius-driving liberal who, were it possible, would have been in a love triangle with Henry David Thoreau and Hermann Hesse, and the red-meat-only, gun-toting, God-fearing conservative proudly blaring Rush Limbaugh from the speakers of her SUV need gas.

American drivers recognize the same brands, and the same corporate logos. Not to insult the adherents to the Church of Sheetz, but even when brands are different, the basic concept of the gas station is the same. We all feel the same irritation at rising gas prices and at people that don’t return the windshield squeegees to their proper place. At the same time, nobody talks about how beautiful gas stations are or has a time-share next to the soda refrigerator. Gas stations are something practical we can all agree on.

Oddly, gas stations favor the status quo. For instance, cars powered on hydrogen or natural gas are faced with a lack of places to fuel up. Likely, there aren’t hydrogen or natural gas stations because there aren’t enough cars that will visit them. Retrofitting existing infrastructure to support other forms of fuel will be difficult and expensive. In contrast, traditional gas stations are common to the point of urban blight. Thus, gasoline cars remain more convenient for the time being.

Whether this will change remains to be seen, but you can bet that new filling stations will fill the role of the old ones, as unspectacular pillars of the American way of life.

Please pull over before writing Mark at [email protected].