Search This Blog



Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Free as Air? Showdown at the Pumps

Traditional, consumer-friendly pump
 Photo by Andy Castro.
Who knew? The company that invented and grew flush from the pay toilet also brought us the first coin-operated air pumps at service stations in the late 1970s. By the mid-1970s, Indianapolis-based Nik-O-Lok was reeling from national angst over pay-toilets that had brought the business to its haunches. Scampering for a new market, the company debuted its coin-operated pump—4 minutes for a quarter (1 minute per tire)—in 1977 in Pittsburgh. Within a year, it added 500 more pay-as-you-go pumps in service stations (perhaps better described from then on as gas stations) in the Midwest and Northeast.

Consumer reactions ranged from amazement to fury. “It’s part of the traditional aspect of service stations to provide such necessary service as free air,” observed (former New York Republican senator) Alfonse D’Amato, who at the time (1978) was town supervisor of Hempstead, LI. The town promptly passed an ordinance banning monetized pumps. By and large, though, that was exceptional:  pay-as-you-pump continues in all but two states—Connecticut and California, which banned the practice in 2005 and 1999.
Philanthropy in the Air [click on photo to enlarge]
Back in the late 1970s, the advent of monetized air triggered a hefty endowment effect among consumers, i.e., disproportionate resistance to the prospect of losing a previously taken-for-granted “possession.” (Today you can see the endowment effect at work whenever “free” services on the internet become monetized.)
Compressed Air Is Not Free. Forty years down the road, resentment toward fee-for-air pumps is alive and well. Witness the thriving, consumer-active web site,, which identifies and advocates its namesake nationwide. An enduring ingredient in the air-must-be-free argument is air’s symbolic cachet as an iconic free commodity. But compressed air with its cost-based inputs of electricity and machine upkeep is decidedly not free! (although providing it at a profit versus at cost are two very different things).  Gas stations that choose to offer their compressed air for free will foot the bill through cross-subsidized fees for other goods and services or float free air as a cost of good will.

An Inflationary Red Herring. But don’t over-weight quarters-for-air as the disincentive in Americans’ well-documented neglect, i.e., under-inflation, of their tires--a penchant associated with garden variety flats, blowouts, and fuel inefficiencies. (A 2003 NY Times article reported that only 11% of drivers check their tires monthly as recommended.)  In truth, price itself is often an over-rated factor in a constellation of disincentives, including consumer-unfriendly pumps with hard-to-decipher pressure gauges and stressful timers. And for many a driver, getting down at tire level can be orthopedically and sartorially daunting.  

So we’d do well to have a serious policy conversation about making tire inflation more consumer friendly--a conversation that considers better air-pump design, driver education, and, of course, economic incentives for motorists and service stations. But to begin, we need to exorcise the red herring that compressed air must be--excuse the expression--free as air.
The Unanswered Question

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Jewish New Year Challah Puzzler

Click to Enlarge (Photos: Jim Neill)

Each year the Woodstar CafĂ© in Northampton, Massachusetts takes Challah orders for patrons of the Rosh Hashanah persuasion. Hours before the liminal event, a Wig & Pen confederate photographed the deafeningly polite queue of Challah bags that grace this blog post. Clue: If you can’t identify the odd-bag-out below, read from left to right.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Amherst, Massachusetts Wants to Party

[click to enlarge]

With its first-ever annual downtown block party a fait accompli, the Town of Amherst showed thousands of students and others a thing or two about partying. Months in the making and spearheaded by the Amherst Business Improvement District--an economic development organization of local property owners--the festivities, from 6 to 10 p.m. on Thursday, September 13 convened along a makeshift pedestrian-only segment of the town’s main drag, North Pleasant Street.  And Amherst’s town government made sure that those best laid plans were immunized from naysayers--including its own previous warnings about the life-threatening Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) virus (a threat underscored by the Mothra-sized mosquito photo atop the town’s web site.) 

"The Celebrate Downtown Amherst Block Party .  .  .will be held as scheduled, announced Amherst Health Director Julie Federman via the town’s web site on the day of the party. “I am comfortable that an event of this type can be held safely in our downtown. Event organizers at my request will have two tables for mosquito repellent, one next to the Post Office and one near the Kendrick Park stage. The tables will also have advisory materials from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. If you are outdoors after dusk be sure to wear long sleeves and long pants and use mosquito repellent with DEET."

But two days before, a robo call to Amherst residents and web site advisory, both from Ms. Federman, had strongly urged residents to avoid outdoor activities from dusk to dawn when feasible until the first hard (mosquito killing) frost. (Several horses in nearby towns had come up positive for EEE in postmortems.)    If residents had no choice but to be outdoors, she recommended covering up and applying DEET. That message followed on the heels of  decisive action by the town’s biggest employer, the University of Massachusetts. The week before it had canceled all dusk-to-dawn outdoor activities on campus until the first hard frost.

The Centers for Disease Control’s description of  EEE outcomes presents a grim story--You’d  avidly  opt for ticks/Lime Disease, given the choice. While most folks bitten by an EEE infected mosquito fail to develop symptoms, one-third who do die and most who survive come away with significant, lasting brain damage.

Amherst parties on
When I told my physician  that Amherst’s party would go on as scheduled, he shrugged and noted that mosquitoes seek human body heat and that large gatherings of homo sapiens (like the Celebrate Downtown Amherst Block Party) create a concentrated heat island—in other words, parallel party-time for  mosquitoes. Oh, and the CDC notes that if EEE symptoms do manifest, it’s  4 to 7 days after a carrier bites you. So we await September 17-20.   Sic transit gloria Amhersti.

More on the event from Larry Kelley here.