For about a century, petrol stations have been the one place all cars had to go to. Their time may be running out though.
In Europe, Italy has the most petrol stations (21,000), followed by Germany (16,000). Quite possibly in less than a few decades, the petrol station will be as rare a sight as a horse trough. Already their numbers seem to be dwindling. Three quarters of UK petrol stations have closed since 1975. In Londonland there are 34,000 cars per petrol station. Part of the loss is to do with changes in the economic geography of the stations. Many of the oldest ones were in urban centres and quite probably it is more profitable to put an office or apartment building in the same location than to
try selling fuel and sandwiches. Another trend involves the change in role of the petrol station from fuel stop to food stop. Many of the main retailers have muscled in on the sector and have restyled the stations as convenience stores with petrol pumps outside. The fuel is bait to attract customers for others things and is used an almost-loss leader. For independent petrol stations it is hard to compete with chain stores. This and the increase in land prices means that one by one they close, to be replaced by something else.
In future other factors may further reduce the prevalence of these lovely places. Or they might stop being petrol stations and become energy stations. However, if the trend towards electric cars continues, the need to have centralised fuel stops diminishes: note the appearance of energy outlets on the pavements across Europe. Each of those is doing the same thing as a petrol station but without a copy of the Independent and a packet of John Players being involved.
For me there are two petrol station situations. One is the routine filling of the car which concludes with a sinking feeling when the huge bill is displayed. 84 litres of petrol is quite an investment. That takes place at a station local to me where I don’t notice anything as I trudge through the process apart from the scent of fuel vapour.
The other situation is the fuel-stop on a long drive to somewhere new. Then even a large expanse of concrete and a characterless store becomes part of a moderately thrilling adventure and a relief from the motorway’s rumble and thrum. At these usually random pit-stops I like to take a look at the maps on sale, which types of Pringles are in stock, the baked good and whether they sell any coffee. For some reason I think of a station somewhere north of Hamburg and south of Flensburg. I think it might be an Aral station, with its characteristic blue logo. It’s only a canopy, some pumps and a metal framed kiosk.
If there is time one can return to the car, sip an insipid and over-priced coffee and have a smoke, taking time to eyeball the vehicles which roll in and roll out. These are fabulously place-less places, with layouts designed centrally and which pay no regard to the local setting.
It was not always like this. In the 1950s the German autobahn network grew and with it the chains of rest-stops. Many have a very late 60’s and early 70’s architecture: long, low and with a brownstone amalgamate pavement. Some of the plantings (in concrete boxes) are almost attractive. These have a pleasant and nostalgic atmosphere, from when driving might have seemed innocent and more glamorous than it does now.
Much the same transformation has affected airline travel. For petrol stations on the autobahns the change from concrete to steel meant the architectural element disappeared. The cast concrete had more sculptural qualities than the units made from sheet aluminium, plastic panels and identikit signage.
Conceivably the motorway service stations will be the last to go. The urban stations are almost gone (they still have them in Switzerland, tucked into apartment blocks) and the remaining stations will be dotted around the scatter-block no-places of the suburbs, appended to supermarkets. As I like to say, every increase in convenience is marked by a concomitant decrease in quality.