Paul Vienneau can pump his own gas if he wants to, but it might take him 10 or 15 minutes. He’d rather pay more and use a full-serve station.
“For me to get the chair out of the car, put gas in the car and then go inside to pay is kind of a pain in the ass, and in winter when it’s slushy it can be dangerous,” says Vienneau, a photographer, community-college instructor, and disability/inclusion advocate.
But the number of service stations in Halifax offering full-serve has dropped dramatically in the last five years: from 25% to 11%, according to Jason Parent of the Kent Group, a fuel industry analytics and consulting firm. He says that’s in line with national trends.
That drop has made life harder for some people.
Darrell Robar is a social worker with the Canadian Paraplegic Association who uses a wheelchair. He lives in Clayton Park, about a 15-minute drive from the nearest full-serve station. “I certainly think it makes it difficult,” he says. “Pumping gas is not an option for some people. You could find yourself in a place where the only way to get gas is to call a spouse or a friend and see if they are free to come and pump it for you.”
Former cabinet minister Jerry Lawrence, who also uses a wheelchair, says a gas station near his Bedford home recently removed its full-serve pumps. “I’ve asked people if they are willing to put $20 or $30 worth of gas in my car for me, and they’ll do it,” he says. “But I shouldn’t have to ask.”
Lawrence also says some stations require drivers to ring for service “but the button is five feet away from you, on a pole.”
Robar can get his wheelchair in and out of his van fairly quickly, but there are other issues with self-serve gas. “Because I don’t have full hand-use, I can’t pull the [debit or credit] card out with one hand,” he says. “You’ll find that a lot of those machines are not accessible to people with minimal hand-use.”
While full-serve stations may make life easier for people with disabilities, Vienneau believes they’re important for a lot of people. “My dad has really bad knees, so … it might be a pain in the butt to make the walk inside,” he says. “The full-serve works for elderly people, or if you have kids in the car; you don’t have to leave them there. It’s a personal touch.”
Canadian Fuels Association spokesman Bill Simpkins, who lives in Halifax, says there are several reasons for the decline in full-serve stations, including busier sites and fancier cars.
“I think it’s a consumer preference,” he says. “There are still a fair number of full-serves around, but one of the key things is that with people buying more expensive cars, they like to serve themselves. They don’t like to have their cars handled in any way. And certainly in high-traffic areas, people want to fill their vehicles and get out very quickly. They don’t like to wait in line.”
Asked if gas stations are cutting full-serve to save on staffing costs, Simpkins insists that “the issue remains consumer preference” and that stations don’t necessarily save money, because they may be adding staff to fill other duties. “Dealers don’t want to turn away business, so they want to make sure they are fully staffed for clients coming to their sites.”
Simpkins says the major fuel companies only operate about 15% of the stations selling gas under their name. In Nova Scotia, many Esso stations are run by Wilson’s, while Sobeys operates several Petro-Cans. He says locally owned stations tend to be responsive to customer demand, and that people wanting full-serve should let them know.
He suggests looking online to see which stations offer full-serve or calling ahead to stations that don’t to see if an employee can pump gas. “We expect dealers to do their best to accommodate people with mobility issues,” he says, but admits that “the issue may be that there’s only one person behind the cash” who may have “many many duties”—making it a challenge for them to pump gas too.
At the Wilson’s in Tantallon, Ken Charsley fills up a car and wipes the windshield clean. He says business at the station’s lone full-serve pump (there were two until recently) is “pretty steady. I’m busy all day long.” Most of the clientele is elderly, but “you never know who’s going to use it. Sometimes kids use it too.”
If you rely on full-serve, there is a lot to think about before heading out. “Every time I do a new full-serve, I always ask first to make sure they have a wireless debit machine,” says Robar, “because if they don’t, then I have to go inside. And if I’m doing self-serve but it’s not pay at the pump, I have to see if I can get in, because some of the older stations are not wheelchair accessible.”
Vienneau notes that some stations are accessible in theory, because they have curb-cuts for wheelchairs, but they “stack firewood and washer fluid on the sidewalk leading to the door,” making it impassable. Robar also checks the hours, since full-serve is generally only available some of the time, and if he is going on a longer trip, makes sure to carry enough cash so he can pay for his gas from his vehicle.
“If you’ve got a vehicle and you’ve got a disability you’ve really got to think about what you’re doing and plan ahead,” Robar says.