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Going Unpostal

by Eric Miller

The U.S. Post Office is in trouble. In some sense it's a holdover from the past in an age of electronic communication. First-class letter delivery seems like it may go the way of the telegraph.

Not wind nor rain, nor sleet, but email is often cited as a reason for troubles at old reliable. Yet there may be another factor contributing to the problems. That is fifty years of decreasing population density.

In my earliest memories in small-town Pennsylvania, I recall postal delivery occuring by foot. Despite the risk of dog attacks, it seemed like a relatively good job that would at least keep you in shape. My maternal grandmother lived in a rural delivery area, however and her mail came by way of a small truck.

It doesn't take much computing to conclude the guy who delivered mail at my grandmothers house went to fewer homes per hour.

When I was a teenager we moved to a rural delivery area. No longer was the black flip-top mailbox on the porch, it was a cylinder on a post at the curb. The mail carrier would just drive by, stick the stack of envelopes in the black box and drive on. These kind of mail boxes were often targets for teenagers with baseball bats and explosive devices. Newspapers were delivered in much the same way, and you can see how well they have fared!

More recently I noticed an operation where the homes in a Dallas suburb are built with a 30 foot or so setback, but the mailboxes are attached to the home. Here a postal carrier would park, walk the mail to the home, return to the vehicle then pull ahead 50 feet to the next home and repeat.

When I lived in a large apartment in Brooklyn, delivery seemed the most efficient. The mail carrier entered the lobby and spent 15 minutes or so sorting the mail into individual slots, then closed the drawer.

Sure, first-class mail is being replaced by email, electronic bill pay and the like, but the continuing spread of the population has limited the efficiency of the remaining operation. I would venture that today postal carriers who drive to boxes outnumber those who walk to buildings.

Here's just one example. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, From 1950 to 2010 the city of Cleveland?s population density fell from about 11,800 people per square mile to 5,100 people per square mile. Over the same period, the city of Chicago?s population density fell from 15,900 people per square mile to 11,900 people per square mile. Of course some cities such as San Francisco are still about as dense as they were in 1950, but they are the exception.

If the U.S. Post Office were a private business, it would likely charge more for delivering a letter by vehicle than they would delivering it on foot. Much of the mail is shipped by train, and then has to travel from a node at another city. These nodes are not found in far-flung suburbs. A private business might also charge additionally depending on how far an item travels, and where it travels. There might not even be first-class mail in say remote Alaska.

But communication is important to a nation, as it breeds cohesiveness, and so we have the pseudo government entity known as USPS.

Is there a solution? First, if paper mail will eventually be all or at least largely replaced by electronic communication, then from a holistic view it would make more sense to get those not yet using electronic communication to use it sooner. The Post Office is not charged with looking at things holistically, however. So the approach they are exploring is largely in order--reducing the days of service and raising the price of first-class mail delivery.

The good news is that density is improving in many cities centers. Recent maps of downtown Cleveland show housing units being added downtown, even as the region as a whole continues to lose residents.

Unfortunately these changes won't come soon enough or fast enough for the post office. It is a lesson for other industries, however. The simplest way to say it is that dense urban environments are more efficient.

Eric Miller
Photo by Richard Risemberg