December 12, 2013
BY CHUCK ZLATKIN
The federal regulations on relocating post offices don't put a lot of demands on the Postal Service — a public hearing, a short comment period, a week's notice before the meeting, and not much more. In many cases, the Postal Service follows the letter of the law while completely disregarding the spirit, which is simply to give communities an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. What happened in Harlem this week is a prefect example.
A few days ago, the Postal Service posted an undated notice at the College Station post office in Harlem saying that it would give a presentation about a proposal to relocate retail services to a “yet-to-be-determined new location within the same ZIP code area.” The notice was posted in an area of the post office where you would be unlikely to see it unless you went looking for it. The Postal Service is also supposed to send a news release to the local media, but there's nothing about the meeting in the news.
The presentation was scheduled for Thursday evening, December 12, at a meeting of the Economic Development Committee of Manhattan Community Board 10, which represents Central Harlem. This is a regularly scheduled meeting of a committee, not the entire 50-member Community Board, and while it’s open to the public, not many usually attend. The room where it’s held has about twenty seats.
As one can see from the agenda for Thursday's EDC meeting, the future of the historic College Station post office would have been sandwiched in between license applications and renewals for a pizza place, a coffee cafe, a lounge, and a taqueria.
The APWU in New York was notified about the meeting on Monday of this week. I am the Legislative and Political Director of the New York Metro Area Postal Union, APWU, and I immediately knew what was going on. The Postal Service was trying to slip one by the Harlem community.
December 9, 2011
The Postal Service has announced plans to close and sell another historic post office. The College Station post office on 140th Street in in Harlem was built under the New Deal, and it’s been serving the neighborhood since 1937. It looks like 2014 may be its last year of operation.
As usual, the Postal Service says it plans to open a replacement facility somewhere in the neighborhood, so the closure is classified as a “relocation” and hence not subject to the stringent public notification and participation requirements of a regular discontinuance.
The Postal Service’s real estate specialist Joseph Mulvey, who has overseen numerous such relocations in the Northeast, is once again running the show in New York. He has arranged to speak about the College Station relocation at a meeting of the Manhattan Community Board later this week. That’s the only opportunity the public is likely to have for a face-to-face meeting with postal officials.
The meeting will be held on Thursday, December 12, at 6:30 p.m. The Postal Service’s public notice is not dated, so it’s not clear when elected officials and College Station customers were told about the meeting. But it was only today that the APWU got an email about the planned relocation — just three days before the meeting.
[UPDATE: After being notified that the meeting might be the only opportunity for the public to meet with postal representatives, the Community Board crossed the USPS off its agenda.]
Very few people attend community board meetings, and it will be difficult getting the word out to the community on such short notice. As the Community Alert from the union says, “The Postal Service is piggy backing this important issue as part of an obscure meeting that no one attends.”
Plus, the meeting isn’t being held in the ZIP code area served by the College Station (10030). Instead, it’s being held fifteen blocks away, at 215 West 125th Street, which will make it difficult for seniors and others to even get there.
The union is encouraging community residents and business owners to attend the meeting and to protest the downsizing of the post office to a new, smaller location. That location is yet-to-be-determined, so the meeting and the public comment period won’t be able to address any issues the new location might present.
That’s pretty much the standard M.O. for the Postal Service these days. It has approved numerous relocations — the Bronx, Berkeley, Stamford, and many others — without even identifying the new location. Over the past couple of years, the Postal Service has gone through this relocation procedure in over seventy communities (a list is here). In most of these instances, the Postal Service has yet to close the post office and relocate to a new space; in most of them, the new location hasn't even been found.
But the Postal Service likes to get the legal requirements of the procedure out of the way, and then go looking for a new location and, if it owns the building, a buyer. That's not really what the federal regulations are supposed to accomplish. They're intended to give the community an opportunity to have input on the new location and the future of the historic building. But the Postal Service has been giving lip service to the regulations and pretty much doing whatever it wants, despite a lot of criticism.
In Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, written in 1887, a young man falls asleep and wakes up in the year 2000. It’s a romance as well as a sci-fi story, so the time-traveling hero soon meets a young lady who helps introduce him to the brave new world of the future.
Naturally enough, one of the first things they do together is to go shopping. In the world of 2000, you don't have to waste time going from one store to the next, comparing prices and products, and there's no need to deal with pushy shopkeepers and sales clerks. Instead, you shop at a large showroom where there’s nothing but sample products. After selecting what you want, an invoice for your order is quickly sent via pneumatic tube to a giant warehouse, and from there your purchases are delivered directly to your home.
In Bellamy’s socialist utopia, the system makes perfect sense. It reduces costs by eliminating retail middlemen, it saves time for consumers, and purchases are delivered "with lightening speed." As the young lady explains, “You may understand how quickly it is all done when I tell you that my order will probably be at home sooner than I could have carried it from here." The downside, of course, is that while the system is perfectly efficient, it lacks all the charm and pleasures of the shopping experience.
Now a version of Bellamy's utopia is coming soon to New York City, and we won’t have to wait for socialism to deliver it.
Utopia, New York
Earlier this week the Postal Service gave notice to the Postal Regulatory Commission that it would be expanding test marketing of same-day delivery to New York City. Under the pilot program, which is called Metro Post, if you buy something at selected e-commerce retailers by 2 p.m. (online or in person at one of their retail outlets), your purchases will be delivered between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Metro Post got started a year ago in San Francisco. There were a number of news articles about it, but then it seemed to fade from the media’s attention, even though it was described at the time as a “game changer.” This week the Postal Service told the PRC that it was going to extend the pilot to New York.
ECommerceBytes had the scoop on the story the day before the Postal Service notified the PRC. (One wonders if the Commission first learned about it that way.) Bloomberg News then followed with a brief article about the PRC filing, but it couldn’t say much more. “David Partenheimer, a Postal Service spokesman, had no immediate comment,” reported Bloomberg.
While the Postal Service remains mum about the plans for New York, one can learn more about Metro Post in PRC Docket Number MT2013-1, which was created when the Postal Service requested approval last year. (The initial notification from October 2012 is here, and the PRC order granting approval is here.)
Under Metro Post, customers can request same-day delivery when purchasing items at participating retail stores or visiting their website. The pilot program involved all but one of San Francisco’s 27 zip code areas. (For some reason, it excluded 94130, one of the less affluent areas of the city.)
The test market was limited to up to ten online e-commerce companies, but apparently only one of them ever made it into the news, 1-800-FLOWERS.com, and that may be the only company that participated during the first year.
There’s a page on the USPS website about Metro Post in San Francisco, which says that you can buy online or at the store. (“Skip the bag. We deliver for you. You'll never have to lug a shopping bag again.”) A popup window says the promotion is no longer available, so it’s not clear if Metro Post is still going on in San Francisco. The website says nothing about Metro Post in New York, but a USPS press release is probably in the works.
A special service for the special few
In Bellamy’s novel, one of the first questions the time traveler asks about the shopping network of the future is how rural areas fare. He’s told that the lightening-quick delivery service is available in cities, but things are a little different in ”the thinly settled rural districts areas,” where it actually takes two or three hours for orders to be delivered — a “lack of perfection" soon to be remedied "when every village will have its own set of tubes.”
Unfortunately, it’s not likely that rural areas in today’s America are going to see same-day delivery anytime soon. As the name suggests, Metro Post is strictly for large metropolitan areas, and probably only their most affluent neighborhoods at that.
For all the problems one might have with Bellamy’s socialist utopia, he at least recognized the importance of providing everyone, whether they live in cities or rural areas, with the same kind of delivery service. And that points to one of the main problems with Metro Post: It’s not uniformly available across the country, and it never will be. It’s just a special service for the special few. That’s just the first of ten reasons why we should think twice about the benefits of Metro Post.
December 3, 2013
BY MARK JAMISON
A couple of weeks ago I filed a motion with the Postal Regulatory Commission requesting access to the documents related to the Negotiated Service Agreement (NSA) on the program to deliver Amazon parcels on Sundays. As I write this, the PRC has not yet ruled on my request, but regardless of what happens, I hope a useful purpose will have been served. (There's more about the motion and the oppositions filed by the USPS and Amazon in this post.)
In making this request and writing about it, I hope to draw attention to the PRC cases that administer the competitive products list and review new NSAs. The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 has long been vilified as the major source of the Postal Service’s problems because it mandates $5.5 billion in annual payments for the prefunding of retiree health benefits, which has been the major cause of the losses reported by the Postal Service since 2007. I would suggest, however, that in the long term, the most damaging and dangerous part of the PAEA was the separation of the Postal Service’s activities into categories of market-dominant and competitive products.
For those who view the activities of the Postal Service as a public service and the postal network as part of our nation’s infrastructure, the language of the PAEA ought to be seen as troubling. Since the Postal Reorganization Act of 1971, there’s been a push to make the Postal Service more businesslike. For many, the term “businesslike” was intended simply to mean “efficient,” and there was no reason to question the virtue of efficiency, but there were others, including the leadership of the Postal Service and majorities in both parties in Congress, who took the language quite literally: The Postal Service was to become more of a business, with its behavior and incentives guided by a corporate mindset and perspective.
By viewing the service of delivering mail in terms of commercial products, the concept of the postal network as a form of open-access infrastructure was replaced by the idea of the Postal Service as corporate entity. The goal of managing and regulating the Postal Service shifted away from maintaining an efficient, cost-effective means of delivering an essential public service. The goal instead became restraining the conduct of a corporate monopoly.
Dividing postal products into market-dominant and competitive products further undermined the notion of the Postal Service as a provider of a public service. The division codified the view that some aspects of the Postal Service were extraneous to its public service mission and existed solely to compete with private sector offerings and presumably earn profits.
The problem with this view is that it quickly undermines any rationale for public service, replacing it with a full-speed-ahead approach towards turning our nation’s postal network into little more than a business proposition. Placed in a situation of serving two distinct and often opposing missions, policy makers and postal leadership have not surprisingly taken the easier road of defining the Postal Service as a profit-seeking enterprise.
A public service mission is difficult to fulfill. It requires constant evaluation, assessment, and institutional self-examination. Defining efficiency and success in a public service is much more complex than the more clear-cut metric of profitability in a business enterprise. A business can content itself with measuring success in dollars and cents, whereas the success of a public service is measured, at least in part, by intangibles like enhancing social value, maintaining community identity, and promoting universal service and access. These measures may be less concrete than profit, but they are certainly no less valuable.
We don’t ask our national parks to make money, and we don’t ask them to cover their costs by generating sufficient revenues in access fees. NASA and the NIH aren’t required to turn a profit because we recognize that basic research and the intellectual property it generates return tremendous value to our society. We don’t make our interstate highways toll roads nor do we limit them to only the highest populated areas. We realize that a transportation network offers opportunity that results in enhanced economic potential. And we don’t ask our military to break even. We consider defense of the Republic to be an essential public service.
We understand that these infrastructures and the services they provide are useful and productive. We don't expect them to be accountable in terms of profits and losses. We are wise enough to recognize that the benefits they provide cannot be calculated in the terms of a ledger sheet.
For some reason, however, many people believe the case of the Postal Service is different. Because paying postage fees for using the postal system is taken for granted, we have been led to believe that the entire value of our postal infrastructure is limited to the fees it generates. It clearly isn’t.