Image via CBC Manitoba
I've tried to stay out of this debate here on my blog. Though I have very strong political opinions I often find that it's easier (and more effective) to engage in conversations with people via social media where we can have an ongoing dialogue vs. writing it all out.
But today's news that there will be a referendum on whether or not we should reopen the intersection to pedestrians is pandering to the narrow-minded and defeatist attitudes that have plagued our city for far too long.
So today I want to provide some historical context for why we're in this mess, debunk some of the false facts being circulated by opponents of the project, and address some of the important moral issues associated with the way people view this issue that I don't think many arguing against the initiative have considered to date.
Some Quick Historical Context
Many people have cited "safety concerns" as the main reason for closing the intersection, which isn't quite true. As a CBC article recently reported, closing the intersection and funneling pedestrians underground was more of a "last ditch" effort to rejuvenate a dying downtown with a big infrastructure project than anything else.
One of the key points in the article reads: "Some of those decisions were based on the fact the city had just, in 1972, amalgamated with 13 surrounding municipalities to create a much larger metro centre."
I'd go as far as to say that the 'Unicity' decision of this time was the worst decision Winnipeg has made to date.
Allowing communities who have no vested interest in the well-being of Winnipeg's downtown, and who have continued to vote against urban development and renewal projects since the 70's, has been one of the primary factors in keeping Winnipeg from achieving true greatness as a city.
Why Some People Think Portage & Main Shouldn't Reopen
Below are a few "arguments" I've heard against reopening the intersection that I'd like to debunk before we go further:
"The intersection is unsafe and people will die!"
Not true. According to the 2016 Annual Collision Report from the City of Winnipeg, fatal collisions only made up 0.10% of all motor vehicle collisions that year. This means that of the 17,586 collisions that occurred that year, 18 were fatal. Of those 18 fatal collisions, only 6 (0.034%) occurred at intersections, and only 4 (0.022%) were with pedestrians.
So if we break down the data we can see that not only are pedestrians quite safe compared to people behind the wheel, but also that intersection-based collisions make up a tiny fraction of collisions and deaths due to motor vehicle accidents.
(For those interested, the overwhelming majority of motor vehicle accidents in 2016 - 39.71%, in fact - were from rear-ending someone. Slow down, people.)
So if this has been the argument you've been using, stop now because you're basing your opinion on false facts and data.
"Reopening will slow my commute!"
Also not true. According to a study issued on the topic, "50 percent of the automobiles passing through the intersection will be 'unaffected by the changes, with no difference in travel time.'"
According to that same report, if your commute is one that will be affected by the opening of the intersection you can expect to see a >50 second increase in your commute, on average.
So if you use this argument then it's time to admit that adding an average of two more minutes each day to your commute is more important than the overall health and well-being of the city you live in.
"The concourse should be good enough!"
Again, not true. Going underground and attempting to navigate the concourse is time-consuming and confusing, not just for city residents (myself included; I've gotten turned-around down there more than once) but for newcomers to the city and tourists, as well.
This argument also ignores the fact that while the concourse may be a passable option for able-bodied people, the same study found that it takes someone with a physical disability an average increase of 129% longer to travel the same distance as an able-bodied person.
If you use a wheelchair or scooter and need to take an elevator, you need to take a minimum of 4 elevators to get where you're going.
So if you use this argument then you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and get okay with the fact that you're saying that 15.6% of our population (aka 145,270 people as of 2012) don't matter, or matter less than your car.
"Winnipeg isn't [inset city here]!"
No, it's not. Just like any city we have our challenges and hurdles, but the driving factor behind our sluggish growth and downtown rejuvenation is that we keep voting against urban development projects that are in our collective best interest.
So if this is the argument you're using then it's time to face the fact that if you actually want Winnipeg to be like any of these cities it's time to stop naysaying and take a proactive approach to how Winnipeg can be like the city you wish it was.
"This money would be better spent on roads!"
This is the single biggest argument Winnipeggers make against anything we disagree with because roads are something we interact with every day.
Here's the thing, though: Portage and Main are both roads, and the intersection plays an important role in the overall flow of traffic and infrastructure in our city.
This cycle of Drive, Repair, Repeat has gotten us nowhere in the last few decades, and by insisting that we prioritize roads and cars over everything else in our city we've allowed our downtown neighbourhoods to crumble and be neglected as a result.
Additionally, the City of Winnipeg spent a record amount this year on road repair and infrastructure projects outside this initiative. So if this is the argument you've been using, it's time to accept that you care more about the roads you drive on than the city you live in.
"Nobody cares about walking downtown, anyway!"
This is also untrue. Over 17,000 people live downtown as of 2015, and I'd wager a guess that these people would like to live in a place that feels walkable, accessible, and safe. After all, wouldn't you?
There are lots of books and studies that have proven that investing in pedestrian-friendly downtown cores are not only good for the people who live there, but that the cities benefit overall as a result.
Here are some stats to back that up:
- Fewer young people want cars. In 1995 people age 21 to 30 drove 21 percent of all miles driven in the U.S.; in 2009 it was 14 percent, despite consistent growth of the age group. Living car-free in walkable areas fits younger lifestyles. [Advertising Age, 2010]
- A one-point increase in Walk Score [based on number of destinations within a short distance] is associated with between a $700 and $3,000 increase in home values. [CEOs for Cities, 2009]
- A 10-point increase in Walk Score increases commercial property values by 5 percent to 8 percent. [University of Arizona & Indiana University, 2010]
- People living in walkable areas trust neighbors more, participate in community projects and volunteer more than in non-walkable areas. [University of New Hampshire, 2010]
- Pedestrian space designed to be accessible to all sidewalk users, including pregnant women and people with physical disabilities, is especially important because those with limited ability are not able to use other transportation options (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2001)
These stats illustrate why increasing pedestrian activity downtown and reimagining Portage and Main as a place for people, not just for cars, can play a pivotal role in bringing more people downtown and making our downtown communities like The Exchange District, Waterfront, South Portage, Chinatown, and the other surrounding areas that much more safer and desirable to live in.
So if this is your argument, and you don't already live downtown, then it's time to own up to the fact that you don't care about the health of the downtown core in the city you live in.
When Winnipeg Fails, We All Fail
It's time for some real talk: if you think Winnipeg sucks, it's because you suck.
I grew up here, and the common refrain I heard from everyone around me was: "Winnipeg is a dump and the best thing you can do for it is leave" which speaks volumes about us as its citizens.
After all, cities are a reflection of the values of the people who live there.
What do you think your attitude about Winnipeg says about you?
If you can't see why reopening the most important intersection in your city isn't also in your own best interests, then it's time to admit that your interests are selfish, and that you fundamentally don't care about improving the place where you (and all of us) work and live.
And if that's how you feel, maybe just don't vote in the next election.
Or take your own advice and move somewhere else.
Winnipeg needs less people like you.
I woke up at 3AM and found myself doubled over with some of the worst cramps I've had in a while. I slid out of bed so as not to wake John, accidentally kicked Toulouse who was lying at the foot of the bed
(it's his new favourite move and I'm feelin' it)
popped a few Naproxen from the cabinet in the bathroom, heated up my hot pad in the microwave, and curled up on the couch in the TV room to doze to some Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get much sleep and wound up lying in bed till almost noon binge-watching Netflix and thinking wistfully of being pregnant or menopausal in order to avoid this painful scenario.
I dozed a bit which gave me the energy to move back to the TV room with my laptop, thermos of coffee (thanks John) and my laptop
and have been doing some light work since then.
Replied to some emails. Scheduled some stuff. Edited some articles.
And as I was sitting here in my PJs, greasy tank top, top bun, no makeup and hot pad that goes back into the microwave every 15 minutes or so I was reminded of the days when I used to work in an office
and how shitty it was to have show up somewhere and pretend like I was fine even though I felt like doubling over in pain and going to the bathroom 24/7
because most workplaces don't take things like menstruation into consideration when crafting their workplace policies
because - I mean, it's just your period, right?
Except it's bloody well not.
Yeah getting yr period is an inconvenience in general, but having to be productive and push through abdominal pain always felt unnecessary and unfair.
How many women reading this have "called in sick" from work because their cramps were so bad? I'd wager at least 90% of us based on convos I've had with other lady friends.
And the weirdest part is that - in my experience anyway - it's not usually our male colleagues who make it weird about taking time off during yr period.
It's almost always other women.
I can't begin to tell you the amount of times I've heard stuff like:
"It's just your period, not an excuse to slack off"
(way to value judge, Susan)
"Every woman gets her period so why should yours be special?"
(taking time off because you're in pain isn't "special treatment" Brenda)
"I'm able to work through my cramps so you should, too"
(fuck you, Leslie)
I've always been of the mindset that if you need to take time off, take the damn time off. Don't kill yourself for a job or employer, especially when they don't respect you enough to allow you to take a damn day off because your body feels like someone's punching you in the gut repeatedly all day.
Which probably explains a lot about why I'm better off working for myself tbh.
Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to go lie down and binge-watch Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and curl up over a hot pad.
This shit is brutal.
* Sorry to all the Susans, Brendas, and Leslies out there - these are example names and not actual shade at any of you. I'm sure you're all lovely people.
Happy belated birthday, Matt Good. Thanks for writing so many songs that somehow resonated with me even though we've never really met
(signing a CD on a tour bus after a show doesn't count, I don't think)
and for being the first musician to say something that moved me.
Matthew Good Band (MGB) played a lot on Much Music when I was a kid and like any good Canadian kid I owned and wore out the CDs for Beautiful Midnight, The Audio of Being (and the Raygun EP which is still a personal favourite.)
But as good as the alt-rock stylings of MGB were they didn't hit you. Never washed over you and made you go
In 2003 Avalanche, his first solo album, was released and though everyone went nuts for Weapon and In a World Called Catastrophe (a great song) I'd go nuts for Lullaby for the New World Order and While We Were Hunting Rabbits (which still gives me goosebumps every time I listen)
and, predictably, Avalanche.
Oh my god that song.
I self-harmed as a teenager and I'd sit in my bedroom and feel hopeless and cry and cut and silently scream along to that song. I was sad and I didn't understand why and there was something about that song that said
I know. I know. I know.
and I thought he knew. I felt like, in some abstract, messed-up way, Matt Good understood what it was like to feel alone and not understand how or why you felt so hopeless. So miserable.
And then Hospital Music came out.
This was in 2007 when I was living in Hamilton and was a hot, hot mess. I was in the wrong relationship and didn't feel like I had any supports and didn't know how to cope so I drank and got fat and would daydream about coming home to Winnipeg and getting wasted with my party crew because everything felt horrible and out of control and getting messed-up felt like the only way to smother those feelings.
And then this musician I'd admired and respected for years came out with an album he wrote as the result of a mental breakdown, suicide attempt, and his subsequent time in a psychiatric ward and I realized that he actually did know those hopeless feelings.
Someone else out there knew the profound, isolating sadness I'd been carrying around and didn't have the words to convey.
And of course that didn't magically make things better.
My bad relationship still fell apart.
I still had to move back to Winnipeg.
My home life was still a mess.
I was still miserable and confused.
But at least I could turn on my iPod and listen to songs like Champions of Nothing and 99% of Us Is Failure and lose myself in someone else's explorations of their own misery and confusion.
And this weird and foreign feeling that I wouldn't really discover or understand for another several years would wash over me. And for a few minutes, sometimes even just a few seconds
I'd feel like maybe things would eventually be okay.
In years to come I'd fall in love with the music of Leonard Cohen, John K. Samson, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and others, but Hospital Music stuck with me, even though I rarely listen to it these days.
Some albums are like that. They're for a specific time. Place. Feeling.
But sometimes, when no one's around, I'll pull out the Hospital Music vinyl and look at the familiar cover: blue with the orange and red and brown. Colours I've stared at so many times before.
I'll put it on the turntable
and I'll have a good cry to the soundtrack of my many heartbreaks.
It takes stones to ask the White House Press Secretary to leave your restaurant because her presence, and what she stands for
an administration that is systematically dismantling all of the progress that has been done in America over these last few generations
hates LGBTQ people
is racist and bigoted
promotes the kind of small-minded, partisan, xenophobic thinking that undoes the fabric of a national economy
undermines and attacks the CIA, FBI, and the Department of Justice
and works to systematically dismantle and disrupt global and unilateral organizations and treaties
rightfully made some of her staff upset.
It must have been a tough decision because to be honest Trump supporters are scary. They're like rabid dogs and will bite you and try to pass on their poisonous hate to anyone and anything they can sink their teeth into.
Not to mention the fact that the person who is supposed to be in charge of running one of the largest and most influential countries on the planet
(okay, maybe not that part anymore since they're basically abandoning the rest of the world)
is so thin-skinned and uninterested in focusing on governing effectively that he'll weigh in on anything that gets his political base fired up.
If I were you, my heart would have been pounding as I walked up to that table. I can't imagine having to put myself and my business which employs other people at risk because a woman who thinks lying to the American people every day is just part of the job decided to stop by for a cheese board.
But I completely agree with your decision (especially since you have several gay people on staff who I'm sure were uncomfortable with her presence) and when you said:
“this feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”
Because we do. Maybe now more than ever.
And as business owners we have a responsibility to use our business to support and promote the values we believe in, even if that means taking a financial hit.
We're lucky enough to be in a position where we can channel our passions into something that adds to our communities and makes the world we live in a better place, and sometimes that means making hard decisions so we don't compromise our morals.
Stick to your guns, girl. You'll get through this.
And, for what it's worth, you just made me into a lifelong customer.
The easy answer is: everyone.
But humans are trash sometimes, and we don't always think that way.
Mostly because a lot of people lack empathy, especially when it applies to people we don't know, or people we have beef with, or people who have hurt us.
Empathy means you give a shit about other people. You care about their life experience, how they feel, what they care about and what motivates them.
Loving someone is just empathy amplified.
Because when you really love someone - I mean really love someone - then you start to act weird. You put their needs and wants before your own. You start making changes in yr own life because you care so much about their wants, needs, and ambitions.
You're willing to look at yr own behaviours and go
"shit, are the things I'm saying/doing negatively impacting the person I care about?"
and if the answer is 'yes' then you try and correct course to the best of your ability. Because that's what you do when you love someone. Even though it can be tough to put down your pride, prejudice, or assumptions about that person, you do yr best and try to act with empathy.
And if we're willing to do that with people we care about, why is it so hard to extend that same caring and thoughtfulness to other people
even if they look
or act differently than we do?
It seems obvious if you ask me. Empathy can heal our broken society.
Maybe not everyone thinks this way. But maybe we should.
Maybe the world would be a little nicer if we did.
Because on one hand there are so many things I want to say about my father.
Some good. Most not-so-good.
It used to be the other way around, but the distance and time has highlighted the ways in which I compensated for his failures in my own mind. How I built up this image of a person, some broken-down dude who was just trying his best in an unhealthy marriage, to fill in the space created by two individual parents who fundamentally weren't any good at what they were doing.
Deconstructing that idea has been the hardest part of the last few years.
Thank god for therapy, loving relationships, and good friends.
Growing up I spent a lot of time in my Dad's office for a lot of reasons. Sometimes waiting. Sometimes crying. Sometimes just hanging out because I had nowhere else to go.
During those times I always seemed to find myself staring at one little print-out on his wall in particular. It went something like this:
"Kid, age 3: My daddy can do anything!
Kid, age 9: Dad? Oh, he knows some things I guess.
Kid, age 16: My dad doesn't understand anything that I'm going through!
Kid, age 25: My dad knows some stuff, sure. He's got some good advice.
Kid, age 45: Let's ask the Old Man for his thoughts on this one.
Kid, age 65: I wish I could still ask Dad about this."
At the time I'd read it and it would make me think about the fleeting nature of our relationships. How quickly we grow and change, and how soon my dad would be gone, and how important it was to make the most of the time we both had together as parent and child.
I don't know what he thought when he saw that poster, day in and day out.
I don't know if his thoughts about it changed as his kids got older.
As he got older.
After he told his oldest child and only daughter to "have a nice life."
On Father's Day I think of that poster, and of my dad.
I wonder what he would ask me, if he could.
Because I have a laundry list of things that I'd ask him.
Every year on Mother's and Father's Days I make a donation to Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Winnipeg. If you also have family issues that get you down, or if you feel like your parents failed you and wished you'd had some better role models growing up, please consider donating.
Mostly because it scares people.
They don't know what to say, do, how to react to the reality that someone they love and care about has seriously considered removing themselves from existence because
the weight of the world is just too much to bear, sometimes.
And if you're not the kind of person who can look at suicide and say
"yeah, that makes sense. I can see how that can feel like an option."
Then it can be hard to understand where those feelings come from.
For me, suicidal feelings have come and gone like the tide. Sometimes they're stronger; when the tide is in. When the tide's out, they're just a nagging thought in the back of my head. My darkest fears are out to sea.
But, like the ocean, they're always there.
John and I talked about Kate Spade last night, and this morning as we were talking about the news of Anthony Bourdain's suicide, and how the news made me feel, and he said:
I think your suicidal thoughts are a holdover from your family. You went through a lot of trauma and you can learn to put these thoughts and feelings down, just like you've put so much of your trauma down in the last few years.
And though he meant well, I felt like I was hitting the same wall that so many people who struggle with these feelings come up against: the people we love rationalizing away our irrational feelings for us because they love us, and because they're scared.
Telling us that suicide is cheap, cowardly, and selfish.
That the people who take their own lives have no regard for how it impacts other people.
That we should want to cling as desperately to life as they think we should.
That if we just worked a little harder, tried a little more... then we wouldn't feel this way.
And maybe they're right. I don't know.
But hearing those things doesn't make me want to reach out. It makes me want to retreat further into myself. To not confide.
Because hearing someone - anyone - say "you can get rid of those thoughts if you just worked harder" makes me feel like a failure.
Because hearing someone - anyone - say "your life is so good, though. You have no reason to feel that way" makes me feel like I don't deserve what I have.
Because hearing someone - anyone - say "suicide is a cowardly move that doesn't take how other people feel into consideration" makes me feel like - well, I'm guess I'm a coward for feeling this way, so what does it matter?
Which, I assume, is how people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, who were so famous, so loved, so admired, and so cherished by thousands, maybe even millions of people
could feel so profoundly alone and misunderstood
to the point where they made that final decision.
It's got me thinking that maybe addressing suicidal thoughts isn't about "fixing" people. Maybe the people who have suicidal thoughts aren't "broken people" who need to be "fixed."
Maybe they're just other people who are wired a bit differently, and who need our support.
Just like our society is working to support people with other types of mental illness, LGBTQ people, and people with mental and physical disabilities, maybe it's time we started working to just support the people who struggle with suicidal thoughts.
Not fix them. Not make them better.
But just accept that some of us just are this way. This is our reality.
It doesn't make us bad people
or cowardly people
or selfish people.
At least, not any more so than the average person.
When we reach out we're not asking for someone to solve our problems.
Hell, we're often not even looking to "solve" it, ourselves.
We just need a life raft when the high tide comes in.
If you're feeling suicidal, please talk to someone. Call your mom, your boyfriend, your best friend, or, if you're feeling too overwhelmed, the Manitoba Suicide Line at 1-877-435-7170 or call any of the other 24-hour crisis hotlines to get help.
and when I was talking to the radio host he mentioned this 'lil blog here, and a couple of posts, specifically, and it threw me a bit because blogging is dead and also because most people these days know me from Twitter, or my business, or my TEDxWinnipeg talk
not the weird little blog I've been running for like a decade now that is actually just a continuation of a multitude of other blogs I've had over the years
because sometimes I forget that people I don't know still read this thing
so if that's you, hello!
and it reminded me that not only is this a place to share my thoughts about my city and the things that matter to me, but also to use it as a place to highlight some of the really cool and interesting things that I somehow wind up getting to do in this weirdly charmed life of mine
The other week I discovered one of the coolest gems in our city: the RTMF bike jam, which is actually a testament to how un-cool I actually am because this thing has been going for a few years now and I only just got around to going
(thanks Carlene for the reminder)
but holy hell guys are bike jams ever the best thing ever.
Not only does it involve one of the best activities ever - riding yr bike - but you get to do it as part iof a massive group of people who are all slightly buzzed, listening to music which is pumping from a bike with speakers attached to it, and riding super duper slow so you can take selfies and laugh at dumb jokes with yr friends.
We met at the muster point in Central Park before the jam kicked off and we met a dude whose name I forget, but he was riding a pink child's bike that said "Cream Soda" on it and was giving out handfuls of cotton candy
which was a bit soggy and gross from the humidity
obviously we had some, and participated in yelling "CREAM SODAAAA" whenever he drove by and pumped his fist and yelled his bike jam chant because that's what one does when one is bike jamming.
Because when you attend weird, fun, interesting events you get to meet all the weird, fun, interesting people that make the place you live something special.
And take it from me: the RTMF bike jam is one of those things that makes Winnipeg really special.
Even though there was a vendor stop around midnight and we grabbed a few more road rockets John an I were exhausted by the time we got to the final party location which was some random side street in The Exchange District
where a DJ and a hot dog stand were waiting for all the partygoers
but instead of partying until dawn John and I rode our bikes to Johnny G's and devoured a plate of chicken fingers and shoestring fries before taking a slow, safe bike ride home
because life's about balance, after all..
Yesterday I went on a bit of a tear in my Instagram Stories where I compared Wolseley (where I live) to the awful suburb where I spent most of my younger years.
I pointed out some of the key differences that make my current, older neighbourhood a good place to live, and how the newer development I grew up in is a barren wasteland not designed for people, or community.
After I posted it a few people messaged me asking why I "hate the suburbs" because, hey! I live there, man. How dare you!
And since it doesn't seem like a lot of people have ever really stopped to think about why the lonely, winding, suburban, sprawling nightmare of a "neighbourhood" that my generation was raised to believe we should want
was even a thing we should want in the first place
and it doesn't seem like a lot of people have stopped to ask why a suburb like the one I just described above would be bad for us both individually and as a society
I posted a bunch of facts on my IG Story and it kinda blew up overnight, and a few people suggested that I re-share the facts I'd posted on my Story publicly online somewhere so they wouldn't be lost after 24 hours.
And, well, I have this little blog here
perfect for the handing out of fast facts and sharing of ideas.
So here they are, for reference:
Suburbs prioritize vehicles over people. Neighbourhoods built to facilitate driving (wide roads, no sidewalks) create a landscape that actively discourages people from using it on foot, bike, skateboard, whatever.
Suburbs are unsafe. Those winding roads sold as "safer" actually aren't; you're actually more likely to be in a motor vehicle accident in a suburb than in the city. (Source: "The Car and the City" by Alan Thein Durning.)
Suburban landscapes don't prioritize safe, efficient public transit. Those "safe" winding roads make it harder to design effective transit routes, and as a result even more people rely on vehicles vs. public transit, increasing the probability of a car hitting a pedestrian or cyclist. (Source: same as above.)
Suburbs are expensive to maintain. Continuing to spread outwards is expensive, and the money needed to build and support all of the infrastructure associated with suburban sprawl takes money away from other essential city services.
Suburbs don't facilitate mixed-use space. "Mixed-used space" is a blend of residential, commercial + other types of buildings. Traditional neighbourhoods (Wolseley, West Broadway, Fort Rouge, etc.) often have mini centres of commerce which facilitate easy socialization (important for human happiness.)
Suburban houses aren't built for people, they're built for cars. A "garage first" home puts the home, and the people who live in it, farther away from the street. The loss of the back lane and the resulting private, fenced backyard reduces opportunities to interact regularly with neighbours and other community members, making them feel less like connected communities.
Suburbs don't facilitate natural socialization. If the place you live requires you to get into a car to go to get groceries, or get a coffee, then it reduces the likelihood that you'll interacts with others in your community on a regular basis. This can make us mistrustful, anxious, and sad.
... so those are just SOME of the reasons why I'm "anti-suburb" and will continue to advocate for smarter city design, downtown living, and making choices as a society that keep us happy, healthy, and safe.
(Also: screw car culture.)
Thanks for reading!
P.S. Want some resources to learn more about healthy and sustainable urban design? Check out some of the reads that influenced my way of thinking:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities - Jane Jacobs
Geography Of Nowhere: The Rise And Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape - James Howard Kunstler
Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture - Alexandra Boutros and Will Straw
Earlier today Tony shared this image on his Facebook and asked: "am I really part of the problem?"
And I've been thinking about this image and comment and concept and here's what I think:
No, you aren't part of the problem. None of us are.
We live in a society guided by principles of capitalism, which means that our economic model rewards businesses who can keep costs low and profits high.
And you know what costs a lot? People.
The median salary for a bagging clerk in the US. is $7.25 - $10.00/hr, which means the average bagging clerk makes $15,080.00 annually to start.
A self-checkout machine, on the other hand, costs an average of $125,000, which means that a grocery store can make a one-time purchase equivalent to the annual salary of 8.28 bagging clerks.
These bagging clerks, mind you, need to be paid their hourly wage regardless of how productive they are. Most will take time away from work at some point (sick time, family leave, vacation time, etc.) They may also need health benefits. Depending on where you live (I'm not great with U.S. business policy so forgive me) employers also need to pay federal taxes towards unemployment benefits for each employee.
Even if a self-checkout machine sits unused for an entire business day, it doesn't matter because the company has already made a one-time investment in the machine, meaning they don't have to pay it for doing nothing. Sure, the machine may break down from time to time but the cost of repairs is still significantly lower than supporting 8.28 people's salaries and additional costs.
Long story short: a one-time investment in a self-serve checkout machine eliminates the ongoing costs of having multiple bagging clerks. It's cheaper and more economical for companies to invest in machines and automation because our economic model rewards fast and cheap.
"Duh, Alyson!" I hear you saying "I know how capitalism works."
Which is all well and good, but when we start getting into the business of discussing how someone's livelihood is being automated away before our eyes, people start throwing around words like "unfair" and "irresponsible" and "cruel" which misses the point entirely.
Here's why: low-skilled jobs are going away whether we want to face it or not.
In fact, automation is expected to eat away at 1/3 of low skill jobs by 2022.
That's only 4 years away, folks, and automation hardware and software is becoming cheaper every day, which means companies that have a business incentive to keep costs low (like we discussed earlier) are going to keep replacing bagging clerks and other low-skill jobs until - guess what - they're basically gone from first-world countries.
It's not "cruel" to look at the facts pragmatically and say "this job is going to be automated away."
It's not "unfair" for low-skilled workers to be replaced by cheaper and more efficient methods because that's how technology, progress, and capitalism all operate.
It's not "irresponsible" to accept that fact and choose to advocate for social support systems like a basic guaranteed income, worker re-training programs, and other services instead.
You know what IS irresponsible?
Pretending like a future that is basically at our doorstep isn't coming and blaming "evil corporations" for replacing low-skilled human workers with automated machines that yield a higher ROI, and acting like choosing a bagging clerk over a self-checkout machine makes even the tiniest bit of difference in the long-term.
It doesn't, and it isn't going to.
So how can we handle this transition responsibly?
Having frank discussions about what automation means for people who can't compete in the labour market because they can't learn high-skilled job functions like the elderly or people with disabilities.
Having honest conversations about how our society treats people who aren't able to work because their jobs are being automated away, and how we can implement a social safety net that allows them to lead rich, safe, and fulfilling lives.
Having real dialogues about the damage that the perception of "job = worth" has on how we react to a changing job market that - sorry to say - is never going back to the way it was.
Because a lot of people are going to be out of work really soon, and more people will lose their jobs to automation in the coming years and find themselves permanently unemployed because they don't have the skills, training, or education necessary to fit into a job market that's becoming increasingly specialized. No amount of "choosing cashiers over machines" is going to change that.
So we can keep pointing the finger pointing at "evil" corporations and placing blame, or we can have some grown-up discussions about what life is going to look like for all those people who don't have the skills to compete in the job market.
Does that sting to hear? Sure.
Is it harsh? Absolutely.
But you know what's also generally pretty harsh?
And we're not doing anyone any favours by ignoring it.