Tragedy of the Commoner, or What is wrong with people?

There is a strange social cringe these days about employing people to do not amazingly hard jobs. For example, a certain well used train service has a problem with too many bikes in peak hour. A good solution for many of these bikes is to encourage people to leave them at the platform. Many of my colleagues ride a bike to a station, but walking from the destination station to work just takes a few minutes.

So a sensible solution would be to encourage people to park their bike at the source, and walk to the destination. Now the preferred solution by this unnamed train service is an expensive $10M per station retrofit with a 'robotic' bike locker system with say 20 lockers with computer control. 20 bikes / day. Yay.

In a labour surplus market, the solution might be to make a chain-link lockup area and pay a person to run a 'cloak room' for bikes. If we were to pay people in the Bay area to do this they might get $30k/yr for their effort. The lock up area might cost $20k (Let's say $100k for a really nice one with two shrubberies and a path down the middle). Paying a person $1 usually costs about $2, so we might be spending $300k per year for 5 people to do this job at one station, with basic health etc. That's 3% of $10M, less than the interest on a loan.

And a person has all these other advantages - they can give directions, they can discourage vandalism, they can be otherwise less employable people, they can maintain a nice garden, and most importantly, they can stack bikes efficiently. This means they could store perhaps 200 bikes in the same area, or even several thousand without a significant increase in cost.

(From wikipedia)

Another example on a different train network is the replacement of conductors with ticket machines. Also tiny hole-in-the-wall cafés replaced with vending machines. Gardeners with rakes with leaf blowers and ride on lawn mowers (and then replacing gardens with endless lawn).

You see, people are important but somehow it is felt better to replace a person who is doing a useful job and staying out of mischief with crappy machine. Sometimes a machine is a better choice (perhaps ATMs are better than tellers, because they give the same amount of customer service?), when the job is unpleasant (sewer inspection), outside human capabilities (mars lander) or too tedious (accounting). But we are replacing humans for human service. The one area where humans are really the best choice (well, until I finish my protocol droid).