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The Restroom Wars : Should Gas Stations Be Required to Provide Facilities for Travelers?

September 09, 1987|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

Return with us now to those great days in gas station history . . . when vandals were content with occasionally stopping up restroom toilets instead of stealing them outright, when attendants were not locked into kiosks behind bullet-proof glass . . . those thrilling days of yesteryear . . . when full serve was the only serve, when station attendants freely washed car windows, checked oil, water and tire pressure and handed out complimentary maps . . . yes, the days when service stations actually dared to provide service.

And gas station restrooms, typically clean and unlocked, had yet to join the endangered-species list.

"If somebody pulled in just to use the restroom, they (dealers) used to send attendants out to wash the windows of the cars in hopes that the people would come out and buy gas," recalls Roy Bonham, a former Chevron representative who called on dealers. "That was standard practice in company-operated Chevron stations in the '60s.

"The oil company also gave station proprietors a quarter-cent-per-gallon (of gas pumped) reduction in rent for keeping the restrooms clean and properly supplied. That added up to a lot of money so the oil companies quit doing that."

The New Wave

Bonham, who concluded his career as a company rep in 1970 to became a Chevron proprietor himself, recently joined the new wave. His old station on the Santa Ana Freeway in La Mirada was demolished and a streamlined, computer-controlled "pumper/foodmart" was installed, designed to minimize service and maximize sales of food and gas.

To Bonham's horror, not to mention that of his customers and those in similar stations, the public restrooms were removed and not replaced.

"I asked the company to put restrooms in and they said no, because of the costs. . . . Then they said that they would put the rough piping in and come back later and install the restrooms. They haven't done that. The station has been open for 14 months. I told them (Chevron representatives) we still need the restrooms and they said they weren't going to put any in. We get customers who ask where the restrooms are . . . then they drive out and go across the street to the Texaco, which has restrooms."

Bonham is hardly the only one upset about the status of gas station restrooms. Their disappearing act is a subject that affects millions of travelers.

Part of that act appears to be the steady decline of entire service stations. According to Vic Rasheed, executive director of the Service Station Dealers of America, there are now about half as many gas stations in the country (120,000 at the end of 1986) as there were in 1973 (about 226,500). In California, there are 12,800 stations now, compared with about 22,800 in 1981, says Steve Shelton, executive director of the Southern California Service Station Association. In addition, both say, many of the remaining stations have been converted to gas-only or food-and-gas-only operations that do not offer public restrooms.

Consumers, however, are starting to fight back. Taking note of the rest stop attrition, they have begun waging a war of their own, arguing to their local government officials that what was once a voluntary service--free public restrooms at virtually all gas stations--should now be mandatory. Some have already won their point.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors earlier this month passed an ordinance requiring that all new service stations built within 660 feet of a major highway in unincorporated areas of the county include public restrooms. Downey adopted an even stronger ordinance in 1985 requiring all service stations to provide public restrooms and giving old stations without restrooms 10 years to comply.

The oil companies say they are being picked on. "We disagree with the fact that our industry should be the only industry required to build public restrooms. . . . Have you ever tried to use a restroom in a bank?" asks Tom Murphy, Los Angeles regional marketing manager for Arco Petroleum Products.

Candelario Arriola, a machinist who once worked as an aide to former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty and to several city council members, is the consumer who first alerted County Supervisor Mike Antonovich to the problem.

"I'm plagued constantly with uncontrolled urine problems. I've been turned down (for access to a restroom) by a lot of gas stations even after I've bought gas sometimes," says Arriola, a Lake View Terrace resident.

Antonovich was impressed enough with Arriola's plea to sponsor the legislation. He also says he was moved by reports from other constituents, among them a disabled veteran who has to self-catheterize himself frequently. "If a man or woman becomes disabled in the service of their country and then is denied using a facility, I just don't think that's fair," Antonovich says. "I think the oil companies are shirking their responsibility in this area . . . . They used to do it (provide restrooms) voluntarily and I think they ought to be encouraged again."

Foes of Proposal

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