Why did rationing gas cause the long lines?

I was only a toddler when the gas rationing happened in the 70s, but I don’t quite get why there were huge lines at the pumps. I may have the details wrong, but my naive logic says:

  1. You could only buy gas on certain days (A or B?)
  2. Almost everyone was affected, except for those who had sales jobs, taxi drivers, etc.
  3. If half the population could only buy gas on one day and half on another, you would have had half the demand on half the days, and half the demand on the other half of the days, leading to the same ratio of people-to-pump as without rationing.

What am I missing?


The natural tendency of people to try to beat the system. A whole lot more people bought gas every day because they wanted to be sure they had their share of gas, so they would buy gas every time they could.


Panic? The same thing that has resulted in confiscating fingernail clippers at airports.

The system in Virginia (perhaps nationwide) was odd days/even days, with license plates’ ending digit determining if a car was eligible for gas on an odd day or an even day.

As Tris says, people who normally would let their tanks get down to 1/4 or less before filling up would top of their tanks every other day, so as not to be caught short.

In NJ at least you were limited to $5 (IIRC). My Olds Cutlass got about 10 mpg (w/ the engine shut off, down hill with a tail wind - in neuteral of course). Needless to say $5 didn’t get me very far. I was usually late for work on odd nubmered days. I carpooled with the girlfriend - but her car wasn’t much better.

If you had a longer commute or wanted to do something on the weekend you had to build up your reserves when you could.

So - it was not only that you had to gas up on odd or even days but you were limited in how much you could purchase.

It was panic buying. People were always stopping in to top off their tank “just in case.”

The odd/even rules were set up after the gas lines were cropping up in order to try to smooth out demand. It only fed the panic.

About the same time, Johnny Carson caused a temporary shortage of toilet paper by joking about a shortage on The Tonight Show. People bought up large supplies in panic, so store shelves were empty for a short time.

How was this done? I mean, if there was a $5 limit, what stopped you from going to the next gas station and waiting in line again? For places that had no limit, were you not allowed to fill up gas cans? What about people with lawn mowers? What about people with boats? The trailer would have a different plate than the car, so were you able to fill up your boat at the station? What about marine gas stations? Were they rationed, or just not allowed?

I was just a wee one, too, but I remember very clearly taking regular trips to Sarnia, Ontario to fill up the gas tank. Yeah, even with the bridge fare both ways. It was also “time to buckle up; we’re in a foreign country now!”

First off, the rationing was not mandated by the federal government. If there were any laws about the odd and even numbered plates, or sales limits, they were local. Most likely, it was just the individual stations trying to maintain a little peace among their panicky customers. Second, rationing only took place in certain areas of the country. Where I live in Missouri, I saw only one gas line during the seventies, where I was limited to $10 worth of gas. I suppose I could have just gotten back in line. I couldn’t go to another gas station because there was only one open station in town that day. There would have been a couple dozen other stations that had no gas to sell.

I also remember hearing stories of people losing homes when the cache of gasoline they stored in their garages or basements caught fire.

The only thing people seemed to worry about at the time was keeping a full tank. Not much prevented you from going to another station to get your next $5.00 worth except time. That, and some stations wouldn’t sell to you unless you happened to be a regular customer before the lines.

There were lines everywhere in Oregon in the Willamette Valley but no lines in eastern Oregon. And then one day, people noticed that one station had plenty of petrol if you ponyed up a little extra per gallon. This gas - the rumor went - came in from Canada.

And then quick as it came, the lines disappeared.

I figured the Saudis were just joking and started a career of converting very low-mileage military vehicles to domestic use. Ah, just kidding! No one would be that short sighted.

I was living next door in MD back then and there was a similar odd/even system. All-letter vanity plates were deemed to be either odd or even, I can’t remember which.
There was a school of thought that suggested a minimum value purchase to prevent folks topping-up all the time and adding to the lines but this could have caused problems for drivers of small cars with small gas tanks.

Sounds like a curious way to go about managing a limited supply. What kept supply and demand adjusting to each other (by the gas stations raising the prices)?

I was too young to drive in '73 and living on my college campus in '79, so I was spared the worst impacts of the gas shortage. But to the best of my memory, the odd/even plan and the rationing were introduced after the lines appeared and were pretty effective at eliminating them. It stood to simple reason: if you assign a different time for each subset of people to buy gas, then they’re all not going to get in line the same day.

I don’t remember lines when I was a kid in southwestern Washington. I do, however, remember colored flags that the gas stations would fly. They went something like this:

Red = Sorry, we have no gas to sell
Yellow = We have some gas, and we’ll sell you X gallons
Green = Fill 'er up!

Don’t confuse two separate things that created lines at gas stations. One was Nixon’s wage and price controls during the early 1970s. Obviously, gas stations couldn’t raise prices during that period, so they limited supply and/or their hours of operation.

The second thing was the two Arab oil embargoes, one in the mid-70s and the other in the late part of the decade. Gas stations most certainly did raise prices. In fact, the only time I personally experienced long lines and rationing in my area was when the price of gas reached $1.00 a gallon – approximately triple the price it was five or six years earlier. Drivers went to any gas station they could find with a lower price to fill their tanks before the next wave of price hikes.

Many gas stations limited the amount of gas a driver could buy to stretch their supply between deliveries.

Under Carter didn’t the federal gov’t consider national gas rationing? I remember hearing that ration cards were designed, but the plan was never put into practice.

Based on my own experience, I don’t think panic or greed had anything to do with it.

If I filled up my tank (~20 gallons), I could drive for about two weeks back then. The rationing limited how much gas I could buy. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but call it 5 gallons. This means I had to fill up twice a week instead of once every two weeks. Whether I did it by stopping four times in a day, or spread it out, it still meant four times as many stops for gas. If you have four times as many vehicles stopping for gas each day, that will absolutely cause lines.

Also, during the shortages, stations would run out. If they had a truck coming in at noon, there’d be a long line of cars there waiting when it arrived.

Thanks for all the interesting information. It seems that the two things I missed were:

  1. Gas stations limited the number of gallons you could purchase at one time, thus necessitating more stops at the station.

  2. People who were worried about running out had to stop whenever their “day” came (if they lived in an A/B day system), making more people stop.


Don’t forget the possibility that it took longer to get gas because of rationing - assuming there was any sort of system in place, checking that the buyer in question was authorized to buy gas would add a bit of time to the transaction time. (Probably not enough to cause huge lines, but it would certainly exacerbate the problem.)


People buy gas when they are on the road. In the mornings, going to work. In the evenings, going home.

And who remembers the terrible confusion that arose when prices hit $1.00 a gallon? Back then, gas pumps had mechanical dials for registering the price and the gallons. And in a precursor of the Y2K problem, almost all of those pumps were manufactured with only two digts (plus the tenths) for the price per gallon. When the pumps were made, no one dreamed that gas would ever get above a dollar a gallon, so why bother with the extra expense to put a dollars place on the price?

So you had gas pumps that couldn’t be set to more than 99.9 cents per gallon, and gas that you had to charge a $1.10 per gallon for, what did you do? Some gas station owners set the pump’s price to the price per half-gallon, and then charged double the reading. Others, with slightly more modern pumps, could set them to the price per liter instead of per gallon. And some of those started posting the prices out in front in liters, too, making comparison shopping impossible without a calculator. If I remember, this situation went on for many, many months. Ah, good times, good times :slight_smile: