With the phase out of gas-powered cars, do California communities need new gas stations?

This Chevron gas station at the corner of Hwy 111 and Monroe St. is one of several gas stations within close proximity to each other in central Indio, Calif., April 25, 2023.
Erin Rode
Palm Springs Desert Sun

At the southeast corner of Monroe Street and Highway 111 in Indio is a Chevron gas station. About a quarter-mile to the east along Highway 111 is a Shell station, and a quarter-mile to the west, an Arco, marking three gas stations within one roughly half-mile radius.

Soon to join the trio is a Tower Market and gas station about a half-mile south of Highway 111 at Dr. Carreon Boulevard and Monroe Street. The city's planning commission approved the new gas station in February, making it the 22nd gas station in the city of around 90,000 people, and the fourth approved in just the past couple years. 

Some residents say the community now has more than enough gas stations to meet demand, especially as the state transitions away from gas-powered cars and as the city says it’s focused on expanding other mobility options, like walking, biking, and public transportation, to meet climate change goals. 

“My neighborhood is good on gas stations,” said Jonathan Becerra, an Indio resident who lives near the Miles Avenue and Monroe Street area and who opposes new gas stations in the community. “This decision has no consistency with how it prepares the residents of Indio for the future that’s coming, with climate change and more electric vehicles, and when we should be thinking about other means of mobility for our community. ... This concentration of gas-car specific zoning choices doesn’t set us up for success in the next 30 to 40 years.” 

Ban on sales of new gas-powered cars starts in 2035

It’s a question that cities and counties across the state are currently weighing. With a ban on the sale of new gas-powered cars starting in 2035, should California communities keep approving new gas stations? 

Under the groundbreaking state regulation approved last year, automakers will need to electrify fleets of new cars in coming years, starting with 35% of 2026 models sold, then 68% of 2030 models and 100% of 2035 models. Last year, electric vehicles comprised 18.8% of all new cars sold in California, up by 38% from 2021. Since the upcoming ban only applies to new vehicle sales, and with the average car staying on the road for well over a decade, gas cars will likely remain on the road for years after 2035, although in declining numbers.

Transportation contributes to the largest share of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, and California’s fight against climate change will require a transformation of how we get around in the Golden State, from electric vehicles to better public transportation and more walkable and bikeable communities. While major policies and regulations like the ban on gas-powered vehicles happen at the state level, California cities and counties are responsible for the individual land-use decisions in their communities ― like whether a vacant lot on Monroe Street in Indio should be used for a gas station ― while grappling with the often-overlapping concerns of climate change, environmental justice and the statewide housing crisis. 

Gas stations and other land uses with undesirable impacts historically have been sited more often in low-income communities of color, and studies have found that gas stations release known carcinogens such as benzene and can cause a higher risk of childhood leukemia in children who live nearby. “Non-white and low-income people'' make up the majority of residents living in areas with high vehicle traffic, according to the state’s environmental health screening tool, and the impacts to these communities include both air pollution from vehicle exhaust that can lead to serious health impacts like heart and lung disease and cancer, as well as other impacts, “including noise, vibration, injuries, and local land use changes such as increased numbers of gas stations.”

Gas stations also can require remediation and clean-up long after they’ve closed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that out of an estimated 450,000 brownfield sites in the country, approximately one-half are believed to be impacted by petroleum, with much of those sites impacted by leaking petroleum from underground storage tanks at old gas stations. Brownfields refer to properties where the property’s expansion or redevelopment is “complicated by the the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance.”

A map of current and planned gas stations in the city of Indio.

The neighborhood directly northeast of the Monroe Street and Highway 111 intersection in Indio ranks higher than 84% of California Census tracts on CalEnviroScreen, the state’s environmental health screening tool that analyzes a variety of neighborhood-level data, including exposure to air pollution and other environmental impacts as well as socioeconomic factors like poverty. The neighborhood adjacent to the Monroe Street and Dr. Carreon Boulevard intersection scores higher than 66% of Census tracts. 

Discussions over the future of gas stations in California communities also comes as the state continues to grapple with a housing crisis that experts say is caused by lackluster housing production, meaning it feels like every parcel matters when it comes to land use discussions. In Indio, for example, some community members argued that the vacant lot on Dr. Carreon Boulevard and Monroe Street would be better suited for a mixed-use development containing housing and commercial uses. 

“Indio needs mixed-use, not deadly use gas stations. ... I’m asking you to stop putting gas stations on the Monroe corridor, we do not need more gas stations in the poorest neighborhoods of Indio,” Indio resident Karen Borja said during public comments at the planning commission meeting. 

Northern California cities banning new gas stations

These combined concerns over climate change, land-use, housing, environmental justice and other factors have led to a small wave of California communities banning new gas stations in the past few years, starting with Petaluma in Sonoma County, which became the first jurisdiction in the country to ban the construction of new gas stations in 2021. Several other cities in California’s wine country followed, including Santa Rosa, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Windsor, and Sebastopol, according to SFGATE. 

Sonoma County itself followed in March of this year, banning new gas stations in the unincorporated areas under its jurisdiction and becoming the first county in the country to ban new gas stations. And last year, Novato became the first city in Marin County to enact a ban on new gas stations, followed by Fairfax and a temporary ban by San Anselmo as it considers a full ban. 

"Over the years, Novato has regularly invested in combating climate change," the city’s mayor, Eric Lucan, told SFGATE. “In just a little over a decade, new gas powered vehicles won't even be available for purchase in California. The ban on new gas stations is in line with our community goals and the move to clean fuel vehicles."

In car-centric and sprawling Southern California, similar bans have been slower to take off. Los Angeles made headlines last year when former city councilmember Paul Koretz proposed working on a similar ban, but the status of a gas station ban in California’s largest city is unclear now that Koretz’s term ended last November.

Rancho Cucamonga and Jurupa Valley have each enacted temporary pauses on new gas stations while they analyze city needs. In Jurupa Valley, the city council ultimately decided in December not to proceed with a permanent ban, but instead adopted an ordinance that aims to ensure new gas stations aren’t placed in areas where there's already a large concentration. The ordinance states that new gas stations cannot be located within 1,000 feet of another gas station, and no more than two are permitted at any single intersection, with a maximum of three allowed within any 1 mile radius. 

Noting that the city must carefully consider future gas stations “as a matter of environmental justice,” and that current stations are concentrated in certain neighborhoods of the city, Jurupa Valley’s ordinance states that “the proliferation of automobile fueling service stations in particular areas inequitably increases health risks for the residents of these areas due to the potential contaminants present at automobile fueling service stations.”

Focus on public transit, connectivity

Even before California solidified its ban on the sales of new gas-powered cars, gas stations already were facing industry challenges from the growing electric vehicles market and other factors. One 2019 analysis from Boston Consulting Group estimated that anywhere from 25% to 80% of the fuel retail market could become unprofitable within the next 15 years, depending on how quickly people transition to EVs and other market factors. 

Changes to California's transportation system to address climate change also go beyond cars. A 2021 report to the state from the UC Institute of Transportation Studies outlining how California can decarbonize its transportation sector noted that many of the policy options rely on a rapid transition to zero-emission vehicles, but also noted that even with more electric vehicles, other strategies to reduce the amount people drive will also be needed. 

“Even with widespread ZEV use, reducing overall vehicle miles traveled is necessary to reduce traffic congestion and emissions from vehicle manufacturing, and to enhance quality-of-life and land-use benefits related to traffic,” states a summary of the report’s key policy strategies, which suggests “policies that encourage active, shared and micromobility transportation, telecommuting, and land-use changes that reduce people’s reliance on automobiles and enhance community connectivity.”

Cities in California are taking note, with a recent focus on public transportation and more connected walkable and bikeable communities as part of local strategies to address climate change. Indio’s 2019 Climate Action Plan includes a section on “sustainable land-use and transportation” among its key strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Focusing growth and investment in (the main downtown, midtown, and Highway 111 corridors) are a key opportunity to reduce vehicle trips, encourage active transportation, and reduce GHG emissions. Mixing office, retail, and services with residential uses, creating open and connected neighborhoods, and increasing density near transit investments are proven and effective measures to reduce vehicle travel and emissions,” states the Climate Action Plan. 

The city is also working on shifting the focus of roadway design “from auto-centric to a more balanced approach for all users, including pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, and drivers,” through more complete sidewalks and more bike lanes. Indio also recently became the second Coachella Valley city to add Bird scooters, recently installed electric vehicle charging stations at City Hall, is seeking grant funding for more EV charging stations. Plans are also underway for the Indio Transportation Hub, which would be centered around a new train station that would link to the long-awaited train connecting the valley to Los Angeles, and also offer connections to other types of public transit. 

"We're trying very hard to build more capacity for alternative means of travel in our city, so that individuals who want to travel by walking or biking have option. ... I think we are doing a lot of initiatives to help broaden transportation infrastructure and transportation options in our community," Indio Community Development Director Kevin Snyder said.

Indio recently approved the city's 22nd gas station

All of these broader issues came to a head at the February Indio Planning Commission meeting about a proposed Tower Market and gas station, demonstrating how local land-use decisions are intertwined with climate change and environmental justice.

Several community members made public comments against the proposed gas station, arguing that the city already has plenty of gas stations and that the parcel should instead be used for mixed-use housing.

“The cost of housing in California is ridiculous, we should be focusing on ensuring the people of this city have somewhere to live,” one resident in a public comment letter stated. 

“Renting prices in the city of Indio are increasing, my friends and family are being severely affected by the few housing opportunities that exist. We do not need anymore gas stations,” wrote another resident. 

The city recently completed an update to its General Plan in 2019, which intends to turn Indio into more of a "mixed-use city," according to Snyder. But while the city establishes zoning and decides what's allowed in each zone, the actual development is ultimately up to "the private sector that comes in and determines the best use of the property and then goes through the approval process."

This empty lot at the northwest corner of Dr. Carreon Blvd. and Monroe St. has been approved by the Indio Planning Commission to be developed into a Tower Market and gas station.  It would become the fourth gas station within a mile of each other in Indio, Calif., April 25, 2023.

Local group Indio Organizing Power also called for a moratorium on new gas stations via social media ahead of the meeting, calling on the commission to “stop poisoning us, stop putting gas stations next to the most affordable places to live,” and for elected officials to stop accepting contributions from Nachhattar Chandi, a prominent local gas station developer who wasn’t behind the Tower Market but is a major contributor to local campaigns. While planning commissioners aren’t elected, they’re appointed by city councilmembers who are. 

Indio Organizing Power also called on the city to “stop thinking only of tourists.” The population in the “City of Festivals” balloons each April as over 100,000 people descend on the city of roughly 90,000 for two consecutive weekends of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, followed by the Stagecoach country music festival.

But despite this opposition, the Indio Planning Commission ultimately voted 3-1 to approve the Tower Market and its 12 gas station pumps, with Commissioner Christian Rodriguez Ceja the lone dissenter and Commissioner Jacqueline Lopez recusing herself because she lives near the project site.

During the meeting, Rodriguez Ceja said he was concerned about how the gas station fits goals for the future, like investing in bike lanes, public transit, and creating better connectivity within the city. He later told The Desert Sun that he was also concerned about “how to best maximize the land-use” of the parcel of land, which is located in a designated “Mixed-Use Neighborhood” zoning district and like other gas stations, required a conditional-use permit. 

“The city is taking the direction of moving away from the way it’s always been done, the single-family homes, we’ve increased density, and the mixed-use zoning is meant to give the community the best of all worlds. We’re connecting people to commerce and solving the housing need,” said Rodriguez Ceja. “And to me, when we have the opportunity to do that, and these types of projects that require specific special permits that are going against what we wanted, or what we said we would use that land for, to me is is contrary and I think the community’s public comments is only reaffirming that they too want what we had initially set out to do.

Other commissioners said they believe there’s demand for more gas stations in Indio. A handout on consumer spending in Indio provided to the commissioners by city staff forecasted a growth of about $18 million on spending on gasoline and motor oil in the next five years, from around $72.9 million in 2022 to $91.4 million in 2027.

“I do agree that we need to be concerned with how many gas stations we have, but I still feel that as much as I would love to say that California and the desert is ready to go completely clean energy, I just don’t see it at this point. ... I don’t think at this time we can say we don't need more gas stations because we can see the demand, and also our population continues to grow and people need to have access to what we need today and hope that we can do better 30, 40 years from now,” Commissioner Gloria Franz said at the February meeting. 

Another commissioner, Gabriel Fajardo, pointed to demographic differences between Indio and places like Petaluma in Sonoma County that have banned new gas stations. Petaluma is over 75% white, with a median household income of over $100,000, while 66% of Indio residents are Hispanic or Latino, with a median household income of $59,399.

“When you compare the demographics and the needs of our city, they’re not one and the same. Having come from Northern California, there's a huge difference, and if you look at the saturation of all the Teslas that are in Petaluma, you can see the reason why. While I see there is a concern, there still obviously might be a need to continue to provide these services to folks that in some instances, including myself, aren’t in the position of owning an EV anytime soon,” Fajardo said. 

“While I think the state’s plan is aggressive, and it does speak obviously the need for clean energy, we have to approach this in a very balanced way, understanding the needs of our local community, those that obviously do depend on transportation, and on petroleum.”

Is one gas station for every 4,000 residents enough?

But others say the demographics of residents living near gas stations in Indio is exactly why the city should start to think more critically about the role of gas stations in the city’s future. 

“This is environmental racism, these decisions in both the long- and short-term disproportionately affect people of color in Indio,” Becerra said. “Indio recently voted to declare racism a public health crisis. So where’s the follow through? Why are we still putting gas stations in Black and brown communities?”

The city currently has approximately one gas station for every 4,051 residents. Indio’s whiter and wealthier neighbor, La Quinta, has seven gas stations, roughly one for every 5,365 residents. In the northern part of the state, Petaluma became the first to ban new gas stations when the city had 16 gas stations, or one for every 3,736 people. Jurupa Valley placed stricter limitations on future gas stations when the city had one station per 3,516, noting that other cities in California’s Inland Empire had far fewer stations, with one per 9,923 residents in Fontana and one per 9,050 in Ontario. 

The gas stations are mostly concentrated in the Indio neighborhoods with the highest CalEnviroScreen scores measuring pollution burden, poverty, and other environmental and socioeconomic factors. The central part of the city ― bound to the north by Interstate 10 and to the south by Avenue 48 ― is home to the bulk of the city’s gas stations and also the neighborhoods with the highest CalEnviroScreen scores, while the wealthier southern end of the city ― home to golf clubs, country clubs, and the Empire Polo Club ― has only one gas station, located at grocery store along the city’s border with La Quinta. Neighborhoods located north of the freeway are home to four gas stations, with one on the way.

Also in the fast-developing area is a sign of California’s shift toward electric vehicles, and what Becerra calls an example of “the environmentally friendly choices going to the richer neighborhoods:” A Tesla Supercharger with over 50 charging stations, recently expanded in light of demand for EV charging. 

As for a potential moratorium or ban on new gas stations, Snyder says that type of action would need to be formally adopted by the city council, which could either act on its own to consider that type of ordinance or could take action following a recommendation from the planning commission. But city staff haven't received any instruction from commissioners or councilmembers directing them to start that process.

Rodriguez Ceja, the only commissioner that voted against the Tower Market, said he “doesn’t know how viable something like (a ban) is for the city, and I don’t know if it would have the political will."

"If the vote on this particular project is any indication, then we know that a more serious and critical conversation on these types of projects is maybe not something that is happening," he said.