When I step up to the counter at Starbucks for my favorites (hot: Grande Flat White, cold: Grande Cold Brew w/ a splash of cream), I find it interesting how accepting I am of the high price of my purchase. By nature I’m a penny-pincher, monitoring the family budget with a fully-focused microscope. But the scan-and-go Starbucks app makes it easy to overlook the five dollars for a single cup of coffee. On the other hand, a gallon of gasoline for the same price is literally headline news.
I don’t wonder if you’re just like me at the gas station these days because you are. When you pull up to the pump you try to ignore the unbelievable digits on the station sign and on the pump itself. The tank in your vehicle is probably closer to “E” than usual (though my wife still refuses to go below the quarter mark). You may even shop around now before choosing your station. Finally, the price of your favorite octane has you considering a cheaper option, even though none of them are really “cheap”. Just like the Starbucks menu, purchasing gas is no longer the mindless decision it used to be.
$5.00/gallon. Ten days ago the U.S. hit that preposterous average for the first time in its history. Just two months ago the average was $4.00; two years before that, less than $2.00. Forecasters say we’ll see a nationwide average of $6.00 before the end of the summer. No wonder our fiery conversations are all about fuel these days.
When my car’s “low fuel” light pops on (with an annoying “DING!”) I know it’s going to take eighteen gallons to get the needle pointing back to “F”. That’s $90 in June 2022 math. When a stop at the gas station sets you back almost $100, you start to think about what else you could buy with the money. Four or five dinners out. Ten months of Netflix. Twenty Starbucks Flat Whites.
If it’s any consolation, at least we’re talking about self-service gasoline here. Some of you are too young to remember when a “gas station” was a “service station”. Prior to 1980, it was all about full service. I can still hear the ding-ding as the wheels of my parents’ car passed over black hoses, triggering the bell to let the attendant know they needed a fill-‘er-up. Then he (yes “he” because I never remember a “she” working at service stations back then) would run over to the pump, ask what octane and how many gallons, and start the filling. He’d also ask you to “pop the hood” so he could have a quick look at the oil, washer fluid, and engine. Finally, he’d give your front windshield a wash, take payment (in cash, of course), and off you’d go. For all that service, you simply rolled down the driver’s-side window and paid the man.
Full-service is still a thing of course but it’s a lot harder to find these days. Unless you live in Oregon or New Jersey. In those states, self-service is rarely an option. Attendants are still the norm. It sounds like an alternate reality for 2022 (or the scene from Back to the Future below) but two out of the fifty states stubbornly refuse to allow self-service. They stand by the well-worn concerns: fire hazards, difficulties for the elderly or disabled, and loss of station attendant jobs. They also charge a few pennies more per gallon because they can’t make a profit the way they used to – by offering services beyond the gas itself. For the most part, those under-the-hood services moved to car dealerships a long time ago.
Just this week our politicians proposed a three-month “holiday” on gas taxes (and taxes on gasoline should be the subject of its own blog post). The holiday won’t happen, though. Our politicians won’t allow the sacrifices made by not collecting those taxes. Or activists will wonder if gas companies will maintain the high prices and generate additional profit. And if gas is on its way to $6/gallon anyway, it’s kind of like adding a new lane to the highway, where by the time it’s finished the traffic has increased too much to notice any difference.
Not speaking for other countries but Americans won’t be driving less in the next several months. The travel forecast calls for more vehicle miles than even in the summers before COVID. Our lack of efficient mass transit and our woes at the airport (can you say, “canceled flight”?) will, uh, drive us to drive. In other words, we’ll pay $5, $6, maybe even $7 before we’ll pull back on our stubborn habits. Just like I will, admittedly, at Starbucks.