I like leaf blowers. I’m sure I’m in a tiny, tiny minority there, but there’s something about them that speaks to me. That’s not why I am suspicious of the pending ban on gas-powered blowers discussed in our cover story this week. I just like them.
It’s a recent development. For most of my life, I was as annoyed as anyone else at the way the early morning peace gets shattered by the piercing whine of an unmuffled gasoline engine. And there’s no irritation quite like being home sick on a weekday morning and trying to sleep it off while surrounded by an army of leaf blowers at full-throttle.
Then one morning a couple of years ago, I was walking down Fort Street Mall when the sound struck me in a whole new way. If you forget what you are listening to, the sound of a leaf blower at work becomes something different–like a symphony warming up, almost. There is a vastness to it, some quality of momentousness or impending something-or-other. To go all the way over the top, it seems to me that there’s an almost spiritual quality to the sound, especially when several blowers are working in concert. I’ll miss that sound if, as seems overwhelmingly likely, the city council does away with gas-powered blowers in the coming weeks.
Fond as I am of it, the sound is the not the reason I’m concerned about the ban. What worries me is the way we are prioritizing the issues here. Assuming that the reason this ban is at hand is the fact that people overwhelmingly find leaf blowers annoying, what we’re doing is prioritizing that annoyance over the economic impact the ban is likely to have–and is very likely to have on some of the people who can afford it least.
The leaf blower is a tool used by manual laborers to beautify public spaces and private residences. If the ban goes into effect, it will take more work and more time for those laborers to do the job. Some estimates are that it will take twice as long.
What that amounts to is a pay cut for them in the service of aesthetic pleasure for the rest of us. Is that the right thing to do right now?
I’ve seen the arguments–Alia Wong included them in her report–that leaf blowers don’t actually save time, and that a person can rake the same pile of leaves almost as fast as a person can blow them into shape. Yeah, maybe you can do that once, in a test. How about all day long? How about all week long, all year?
And if the yard guys can’t do it, are we going to pay them any more money?
Everyone knows the answer to that one. No. Not hardly. Not in this economy and probably not in any economy. What’s going to happen, probably, is that the yard guys are going to work much harder for the same amount of money–and that’s just per job. If they’re getting, say, five jobs a day and those jobs take half again as long under the ban, then what? Then they’re working harder at every job for less money.
The ban is premature. We need to do a much better job of estimating the economic impact, and we need to make sure that we’re not preserving our suburban idyll at the expense of the workers who help make it possible.