I am by no stretch anywhere near the most well-traveled person in this fine country—that’s a singular achievement, and I’m many tens of millions of ranks below that elusive, eternally unknown #1. But I’m not badly traveled: in 2021 I finally made it to Alaska, my 50th state (a pretty clichéd 50th state if you ask me). And I’m traveled enough by car that I’ve entered well over half of the states purely terrestrially; no airplane at all. But I’m not so attuned to road culture that this Utah gas station didn’t manage to surprise me:
And no, I’m not talking about the fuel prices, which are high even in the context of these inflationary times. This is Moab, Utah, an enormously popular tourist destination due to its proximity to two National Parks: Arches just a few miles away from the photo and Canyonlands just a bit further. And the old uranium mining town of Moab, sort of poised in between them. Not a big town at all: even with all the growth in Utah these last few decades, Moab is steadily but slowly climbing to just under 5,500 people. But it’s the biggest town in a huge radius. These two national parks comprise a majority of the land on either side, and there’s not much else in the way of settlements: the town of Castle Valley is only about seven miles away as the crow flies, but the severe terrain prevents any clear paths. It’s a 35-minute drive across 22 miles to get there, and Castle Valley doesn’t even have 350 people. Spanish Valley is a more direct nine miles southeast of Moab and claims a staggering 500 people, but it isn’t even an incorporated place.
And that’s about it for at least a fifty mile radius, and usually more. Grand County, of which Moab is the seat, has a density of just 2.6 people per square mile. The county is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined and has fewer than 10,000 people. People in Moab—locals or visitors—are basically captive, because there’s so little of anything nearby. They’re forced to buy gas there and the handful of stations can easily elevate the prices under the same logic than an airport can charge $16 for a sandwich.
But, for the purposes of this article, I digress. It’s about that gas Express 24 station; not the prices.
And despite my extensive traveling, it’s the first I’ve seen of a completely unmanned gas station. No convenience store, no little kiosk, no vending machines, no ATM for those who cannot pay by credit or debit. Just gas and diesel. I’ve seen gas stations in Europe that become unmanned (but not fully closed) after hours, mostly a byproduct of strict labor laws that don’t allow certain businesses to employ workers after a late hour but people inevitably still need their petrol. Those unmanned-after-hours facilities in Europe still have buildings and infrastructure though, and, if I recall correctly, require an extra level of security when no one was around: e.g., punching in or scanning a drivers license or vehicular license plate number to unlock the pumps.
Such a situation is rare in the United States. Gas stations either close completely at a certain point at night or they remain open—and manned—24 hours. The US even still has two states—Oregon and New Jersey—where attendants pump the gas for customers; self-serve is illegal. (Oregon has relaxed its 70-year-law, allowing self-serve in counties with fewer than 40,000 residents and granting a temporary statewide reprieve in 2020 during COVID-19.) These two states assert that it’s a matter of public safety; gasoline is a highly flammable liquid. But across most of the country, attendants exist to operate the register for those who don’t pay at the pump, or to sell convenience related products, either in a tiny kiosk or a structure of varying sizes that effectively competes with a 7-Eleven or Circle K. And they can sometimes monitor suspicious activity, reporting criminal acts (which at gas stations are frequent) to law enforcement. But if there’s a steady line of patrons at the cash register, it is unlikely the attendants will have time to watch for siphoning or scamming the credit card readers. An artillery of cameras is necessary to do so.
Truth be told, the Oregon and New Jersey examples are still far more prevalent than the inverse extreme witnessed here in Moab. The only overt evidence I can find of a journalistic exploration of completely unmanned gas stations is from Whittier Daily News a few years ago, exploring a public-private partnership between the City of Placentia, California, who owns land and leases it to Galaxy Oil Company, who operates the pumps and splits the profit with the City. The City in turn uses its share of the profits to finance other public works. Even this Placentia example, however, includes copious signage featured in the Daily News article, announcing that it is “FULLY AUTOMATED”–something conspicuously absent at the Express 24 in Moab. And–though I cannot verify it–it’s reasonably to infer that many gas stations are, in fact, a pairing between the oil company running the pumps and a convenience chain selling the merchandise where the cashiers/attendants spend most of their time. A popular example in the Rocky Mountain West is the famed brontosaurus brand, the recently acquired Sinclair Oil Corporation, which routinely partners with the convenience chain Stinker Stores, featuring a Rudolph-nosed skunk. Though I’m not clear who leases from whom (probably the latter from the former), the financial relationship in this pairing likely resembles that of the movie theater industry, which historically hired union projectionists to operate the movies (back in the days of celluloid) but earned almost all its profits from selling candy and popcorn. In the instance of an unmanned gas station, the convenience portion is completely absent, so, if the oil company is the property owner, a firm like Express 24 depends entirely on the pumps for revenue, incentivizing any cost cutting measures–including axing the attendants or cashiers if at all possible. And copious cameras keep crime at bay.
This Express 24 no doubt has cameras covering every square inch of the property. I didn’t look for them. But an unmanned gas station like this wouldn’t exist if the operator couldn’t run it profitably, and, in fact, it probably can offer slightly more competitive prices than others in Moab simply because it has no staff. Most of the Google reviews of this location acknowledge that lines are huge people it offers cheaper gas than anywhere else in Moab. I can’t help but wonder if this is set to become a new normal in years ahead. In an era when most big-name supermarkets have complete self-checkout lanes, or where a growing number of fast food restaurants allow customers to punch their orders into a touch-screen monitor, who’s to say gas station companies won’t explore more no-frills locations that allow them to put a competitive edge on their business, eliminating staffing, and charging twenty cents fewer per gallon?
I’m going to venture that this unmanned gas station in Moab is a pilot. Gas siphoning is probably the biggest threat to this configuration, but a high-trust state like Utah hosts a low-crime town with a captive clientele of mostly well-off tourists. It’s a great place to test out another industry that can potentially flourish with as few human workers as possible. Aside from the security cameras, obviously someone comes by every day or so to keep the place tidy, let alone to replenish the underground tanks. But the elimination of a retail element prone to shoplifting (and thus one that drives up insurance costs) will streamline the offerings, making a place like Express 24 more popular despite the lack of variety in merchandise.
If the fuel is cheap enough, people are fine with an unmanned gas station; they don’t usually demand the frou-frou. Not something a big, fancy, squeaky clean gas/convenience enterprise like Wawa or Sheetz or Buc-ee’s wants to hear, but here’s a photo of a gas station in the Hybla Valley neighborhood of suburban Fairfax County, Virginia that is surprisingly lacking another core feature to gas stations:
No canopy. Aside from the fact that canopies are a tacit signal of a gas station–this one in particular just blends in with the suburban scenery because it lacks it–it’s kind of a weird choice in a part of the country that can get violent, torrential thunderstorms every few days from May to August. Really the sort feature one would expect to be absent in a place that gets less than ten inches of rain per year—a place like Moab, Utah.