Article Published in the Providence (RI) Journal
The President’s Commission on the United States Postal Service (USPS) met last Thursday to discuss the agency’s mounting financial problems. When private businesses face such troubles, hard budget constraints and bottom-line incentives drive them to improve. But the USPS, as a government service and monopoly, lacks such motivation. Official Decrees and Long-Term Plans may help some, but the post office needs a more powerful solution. They need to cut costs by cutting services. Expensive doorstep and curbside service should be replaced by cheaper centralized delivery.
The Postal Service would still guarantee delivery to everyone for the same price but, instead of delivering to individual, scattered mailboxes, it would deliver to groups of mailboxes in central locations. This type of service already exists in some places. Many rural residents, for example, go to a P.O. Boxes in a neighboring town to get their mail. Those in high-rise apartment usually go to a mailroom to get theirs. Many in townhouse neighborhoods, private communities, and low-rise apartments get their mail in cluster boxes in groups of eight to sixteen.
Centralized delivery is how we get many of life’s necessities. Milk used to be delivered by a milkman, but now we get it ourselves at a nearby store. Doctors used to make house calls, but now we find our own way to the hospital. School buses don’t pick up children at their doorstep-they get them in groups at the bus stop. Our mail should be delivered in a similar way.
There is a reason we don’t get farm-to-fridge grocery service: the personalized, final leg of the trip costs too much. As frequent fliers know, cross-country flights cost much less per mile than cross-town taxi rides. The same is true with the mail-and the Postal Service has known this for years.
A 1988 General Accounting Office study found “the use of cluster boxes reduces mail delivery costs.” The Postmaster General responded, “[W]e certainly agree with your finding.” A recent USPS Handbook lists the following per-address, per-year delivery costs: Doorstep $243, Curbside $154, Cluster Box $106.
Centralized delivery would be a modest transfer of responsibility, but a giant cost-cutter for the Postal Service, which delivers to 139,452,479 addresses a day. Mail carriers usually get to an impressive 500 addresses a day-but at that rate 278,905 daily routes require service. Centralized delivery would greatly reduce the 91 million gallons of gas needed by hundreds of thousands of trucks to drive the 1.15 billion miles currently required to deliver the mail each year. Some of the 294,456 carriers would still be needed, but not nearly as many since it takes much less time to put envelopes in adjacent boxes than it does to stop at every house.
Where would these cluster boxes go? Many new communities have them at the end of the street, which is a good start. But the more concentrated the boxes, the greater the transfer of responsibility, and the greater the savings. Many could be added to the 38,000 post offices already all over the country. That’s almost three times as many post offices as there are school districts. If the kids can get to school, can’t the grown-ups get to the post office? Let those who don’t want to make the trip pay for doorstep service themselves, instead of making apartment dwellers and rural residents subsidize them.
A bolder move would be to offer both free centralized boxes and mailboxes for rent at the local 7-11, Food Lion or Mailbox, Etc. Some may find boxes at these stores preferable to P.O. Boxes because of longer hours, closer proximity to their homes or because they have to go there anyway. The post office would gain by shifting maintenance responsibility to the stores and may turn a profit if stores compete to host the boxes.
If the U.S. Postal Service wants to continue to be relevant, and avert financial crisis, it must make the changes our changing times demand. Otherwise, instead of just the end of doorstep delivery, the days of communication through the USPS altogether may soon be over.
Max Pappas is an adjunct scholar of the Lexington Institute.
Find Archived Articles: