Forward the Future I (Updated!)

This series will intermittently consider the future of commercial activity within U.S. municipalities.

First…. fast food.

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(Wikimedia Commons)

Recent news coverage of the McDonald’s low-pay budget snafu and demands by some fast food workers for a $15/hr minimum wage has fueled conversations about living wages, profit margins and sustainable business practices. In response, fast food chain flacks have ominously touted the machines as the final outcome of such activism. This potential for automation in reducing some of these fast food jobs, as reported on by NPR, is very real in the near future.

Forces beyond labor cost may push automation forward*. Continued progress on eliminating corporate and first-in-line farmer subsidies along with increased global demand for beef, dairy and corn-based products will increase fast-food chain supply costs. Expansion of consumer preference for natural meat products (grass-fed, antibiotic free, etc.) into median and lower income brackets is likely.  While profits remain high for some (McDonald’s, YUM!), others are struggling in the face of increased competition and tighter consumer budgets.

*For a more extreme version of this hypothetical, imagine some degree of restrictive immigration reform passes in 2017-2020, removing a key labor constituency for fast food.

Something has to give.

While automation is over hyped at this point, it is viable in fast food. I ate often at Pepper Lunch and similar restaurants in Japan where I ordered my meal on a computer screen or vending machine. If the order was not automatically received by the cook, I would give the ticket to a worker who helped in the kitchen or with cleaning as well, and waited the same amount of time for my food as I would have if I had placed my order with a human.

Pepper Lunch franchises in Hong Kong and Singapore are notoriously slower in service and ordering, precisely because they lack this automated ordering system.

Installation would not be a prohibitively expensive proposition for most chains, though franchisee concerns would drag adoption notably in the beginning. Not only inside restaurants but in drive-thru lanes & via mobile apps, this ordering scheme would reduce labor costs and uncertainty.

Would the varying popularity of certain chains at different times of day be altered by the absence of a front-end person? I doubt it. The elderly would still congregate for conversation and gossip in the morning, workers on lunch breaks would still line up for a quick bite, and high schoolers and families with young children in the afternoon would still need an odd timed bite to eat. Ditto for the evening services.

What would change then?

For one, there would be less demand for low-paying jobs. Automation of fast food could be a bellwether for automation of retail and other services, leading either to the chance for a Las Vegas compromise between management and labor or the more likely continued under-compensation of skilled service workers .

While the idea of 75-80% of fast-food jobs being automated is dubious, a 25-35% reduction is not unfeasible. As we suffer through a critical skills abyss at the bottom of the labor pool (math and reading comprehension, writing ability, self-discipline, etc.), this would not be a good outcome since we already have so many more workers in this labor cohort who lack viable jobs.

That however is a conversation for another day.

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Update: McDonald’s in the EU region has already begun its automation process.

“The hiring picture doesn’t look quite so rosy for Europe, where the fast food chain is drafting 7,000 touch-screen kiosks to handle cashiering duties.”

Lost Connection

I have vivid, joyous memories of growing up in a small Pennsylvania town. Living in a neighborhood with sidewalks, my friends and I walked or biked everywhere; even into another state (NY state was 25 minutes away on foot). We enjoyed backyards, public parks and even two wooded areas surrounded by an open greenfield to play everything from football to X-Men in (the cartoon was big then). I walked to school, cut through several backyards in a trek to K-Mart to buy a snow sled after a winter storm, had fights in neighbor’s front yards who were not home (with one exception disastrously), shoveled snow from some of those same neighbors’ driveways and I stayed in a perpetual state of grounding from the very week we moved to the town in 1992 for exceeding my bounds*. I knew more than two dozen kids in my neighborhood within my age range and was constantly at play or ‘hanging out’ with one or more of them when I was not grounded and the weather was not too menacing. We lived and the sidewalk was our highway to everywhere!

*Not yet 10, in the summer of 1993 I rode a bike to the next town over, stopped at a corner market for a Yoo-Hoo and was spotted by my father and the Snap-On salesman having lunch across the street.

Right before 7th grade, my father’s new job took us to the Triad region of North Carolina. We moved to an apartment complex aside a busy state two-lane highway. There were no nearby parks, no backyards for sports besides two basketball courts, and definitely no sidewalks in sight. My seemingly vast group of friends was replaced by a few kids who I played basketball with from time to time. I started to play video games much, much more than I ever had and when I bored of them read even more books than usual. The internet’s arrival in my apartment eliminated my boredom, especially in the heady days of AOL chat where I could enjoy incredible conversations with fellow music and book fans.

However, something was wrong about where we lived. Sure, I felt safe in the complex and riding the bus to school was no tragedy (until I was still riding it as a high school junior!). Still, life had dramatically changed, though I could not explain it except to bring up long-gone friends and the absent freedom of being able to independently walk or bike damn near anywhere I wanted.

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Ten years later, I was completing a research project on the pedestrian experiences of the elderly. The results were grim, especially for those in poor health who needed the outdoors activity of walking the most. A super-majority of elderly lived in ‘neighborhoods’ without sidewalks. Grocery stores and public parks were out of reach, accessible only by car and in rare instances public transit.

It all dawned on me personally then.

Studying urban planning (among other things), I knew the relationship between developers, zoning regulations and urban form. The same options denied to me as a middle-school teens had been denied to many of the elderly I studied. We, indeed a majority of the country, had been presented with a dubious choice: you can get anywhere you want anytime, as long as you have a car. Those without a car were often left behind in planning and governance. They now comprise a quarter of the population and are growing in number. 

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Such arrogant policy is no longer a prudent or justifiable mode of planning and development with the demographics of today and tomorrow. The policies that coerce people into this lifestyle with burdensome regulations and developer giveaways, bribe them into accepting it with future generations’ money paying for waste, and hold them to it with a dubious real estate valuation model are wrecking the country’s finances and harming its productivity. 

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Simply put, we have enormous issues as a country. I want to write about them on this blog and will link them when possible to planning and development.  When I cannot, I will instead look towards the future and do my best to imagine how they will shape the cities and towns of tomorrow.