Where have all the blue boxes gone?

January 2, 2015

Finding a good old-fashioned mailbox where you can drop off a letter is becoming almost as difficult as finding a pay phone.  The iconic blue boxes are getting to be few and far between.

Fifteen years ago, there were almost 400,000 collection boxes in the country.  Now there are fewer than 160,000 of them, and the number goes down every year.

Earlier this week the Postal Service submitted its Annual Compliance Report (ACR) to the Postal Regulatory Commission for the Commission's Annual Compliance Determination report.  The main purpose of the review process is to determine the extent to which each type of mail is covering (or not) its attributed costs.  The ACR therefore contains a mountain of data about postal rates.  

According to the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which says what the ACR should include, the  Postal Service is also supposed to report on customer access to postal services.  But the subject gets just one page in the report, and collection boxes merit just one sentence:

“Nationally, there were 156,349 collection boxes available at the end of FY 2014, compared to 159,729 at the beginning of FY 2014.”

The ACR also includes a table showing the number of boxes, area by area, at the end of FY 2012, 2013, and 2014.  The following table uses those numbers, along with the year-to-year changes in percent from the previous year.

Nationwide, over the past two years the number of boxes has decreased by nearly 8,000.  That's the net decrease.  Considering that the Postal Service sometimes puts up boxes in new locations, it's likely that more than that have been removed.  Even so, the rate of decrease — 2.1 pecent over the past year —  is not as bad as it's been in previous years, as a look at the history of collection boxes shows.

 

Here today, gone tomorrow

Collection boxes were first introduced in 1858.  In their heyday, the boxes also served as storage facilities for carriers who made their rounds on foot, holding items such as rain gear and coats.  Now that most carriers have vehicles, the gear is in the truck and the mailboxes just collect mail.

For well over a century, the number of collection boxes grew along with the population of the country.  By the early 1970s, there were almost 400,000 of them.

According to data provided to the PRC by the Postal Service (in connection with a complaint filed by postal watchdog Douglas Carlson in 2002), the number of boxes fluctuated throughout the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes going up, sometimes down.  In some years, there were as few as 260,000, while at other times, there were as many as 386,000.  According to this USPS report, in 2000 there were still 365,000 collection boxes on the street.  

Then in 2002, in order to save fuel and labor costs, the Postal Service began an aggressive program to cull what it considered underused boxes.  Over the next few years, the number of collection boxes decreased dramatically.  A 2009 news report observed that the Postal Service had been removing the boxes nationally at the rate of more than 60 per day.  According to a BBC report, there were 175,000 boxes as of July 2009.

Since then, the rate of decline has diminished considerably. Over the past two fiscal years, some 7,750 boxes have been removed — about 15 per day. 

In order to identify which boxes are underperforming, a postal employee does a density check that involves counting pieces of mail per day over a period of two weeks.  Back in 2006, when the Postal Service was aggressively removing the boxes, if there were fewer than 50 pieces of mail per day, a box could be targeted for disposal.  

According to the Postal Operations Manual, the current policy is that if a mailbox isn't seeing an average of 25 pieces per day, the Postal Service may remove it.  The Postal Service is required to post a 30-day notice on the box before it’s removed, and customers are invited to comment. 

While the rate of removing boxes may not be as bad as it was a few years ago, customers still don’t like it when their box vanishes.  News articles regularly report collection boxes disappearing and customers complaining. 

This past summer, there was a report that 39 boxes had been removed from the streets of Rockford, Illinois, which left the city with 102.  In January, 16 boxes were removed from Redlands, California, after the Postal Service determined that they were being underused.

Earlier this month, a news team in Coronado, California, observed that several boxes had vanished.   A mail carrier said that many folks along his route had complained about the “missing boxes.”  He also said that it's harder for the elderly to get down to the post office or find parking.

And that’s basically the issue: By removing the collection boxes, the Postal Service saves some money, but the savings comes at the expense of average customers, who end up having to spend their own time — and often gas too — going to a box that is further away.

Another post office gets annexed: North Platte to relocate from downtown to industrial tract

December 18, 2014

The Postal Service is continuing to close downtown post offices and move retail services to inconveniently located postal facilities on the outskirts of town.  While it may be efficient for carrier annexes and mail processing plants to be located where there's plenty of room for parking for postal workers and easy access for delivery trucks, these facilities were never intended for use by average customers.  But in its quest to cut costs, the Postal Service doesn't seem to care much about average customers, and the "annexation of the post office" goes on. 

The Postal Service is now planning to close the downtown post office in the Federal Building on Third Street in North Platte, Nebraska, and replace it with a retail office in the carrier annex and mail processing center on Industrial Avenue.  The name of the road tells you everything you need to know about the new location.  

The annex is on a dead end road in an industrial tract far from the center of the city.  It’s totally unsuitable for pedestrians and bicyclers, and the only reason anyone would drive out there is to go to the post office.  There’s not much else. 

As per its usual MO, the Postal Service did not hold a public hearing on the relocation plan.  Instead, as permitted by the relocation regulations, it sent a representative to a regular meeting of the City Council.  The meeting was sparsely attended.  Most people in North Platte probably learned about the proposed relocation of the post office by reading a news article or seeing a news report on TV a couple of days after the meeting was held. 

At the meeting, City Administrator Jim Hawks complained that he had been misled by the Postal Service representative into thinking that this would not be the only opportunity for the community to meet face-to-face with a postal official. As a result, the meeting was not listed as a public hearing on the council agenda.

“I thought I asked, and was told that the council meeting would not be considered the public meeting,” Hawks said.

Russ Rainy, the USPS representative from Denver, said simply, “I apologize if I misspoke.”   There would not be another meeting.

As usual, the Postal Service thus fulfilled its legal obligation under the federal regulations governing relocations and avoided having to face a large room filled with angry customers.

The few that did attend the City Council meeting were definitely unhappy.  Another complaint was that the Postal Service is giving customers only two weeks to submit written comments, with a deadline of December 31.  That too complies with federal regulations, but the comment period will occur when people are distracted by the holidays — another way for the Postal Service to minimize opposition to the relocation.

These sorts of problems in the relocation process were the subject of an investigation by the USPS Office of Inspector General issued earlier this year.  The OIG noted that in many cases the Postal Service had failed to issue a press release before the public meeting and did not adequately solicit comments.  The OIG pointed to several other recurring issues involving public participation, not following regulations, and not providing transparency.  (There's more about the relocation problems in this previous post.) 

The post office in North Platte is a big operation, with a thousand post office boxes and daily use by over 300 businesses.  Many of them are run by one person, so it’s important to be able to walk over to the post office during lunch.  Now these businesses will have to find someone to drive two miles to the annex. 

One business owner at the meeting said that many customers would look for alternatives to the Postal Service.  For example, there’s a FedEx Ship Center less than a mile from the post office, and a UPS store just over a mile away.  For people who live and work downtown, these may prove more convenient than the annex, so the Postal Service will lose revenue.

The Postal Service owns the annex building, so aside from the cost of retrofitting it for a retail operation, some money will be saved on the rent at the downtown office.  The amount of the rent is not disclosed on the USPS leased facilities list because the Federal Building is operated by the GSA

But saving some money on the rent should not be the Postal Service's only concern.  The North Platte Federal Building and Post Office was built in 1964, so it's now fifty years old and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.  Perhaps more importantly, it's located in the heart of the North Platte Historic Downtown district.  

The Postal Service is supposed to be locating into such areas, not moving out of them.  As noted in "Preserving Historic Post Offices: A Report to Congress," prepared by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Postal Service has a legal obligation to locate in historic downtowns.

Executive Order 13006, issued in 1996, "directs federal agencies not only to locate their operations in established downtowns, but also to give first consideration to locating in historic properties within historic districts."  

The order requires the federal government to “utilize and maintain, wherever operationally appropriate and economically prudent, historic properties and districts, especially those located in central business areas.”  It also directs federal agencies to give “first consideration” to historic buildings when “operationally appropriate and economically prudent.” The Executive Order was codified into law as an amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act in 2000.

The Postal Service has presented the plan to move to the annex as a proposal in its early stages, but if past experience is any indication, it’s already a done deal.  A “final decision” will come early next year, and the move will take place when a retail counter is set up in the annex.

UPDATE: The North Platte City Council has decided to hold its own special meeting about the closing of the downtown post office, and it will consider filing a complaint with the Postal Service for failing to properly notify the public as required by federal regulations.  Read more.

(Photo credits: North Platte Mail Processing Center, Google maps: North Platte Federal Building)

The Post Office in Black and White, 1935-1944

December 14, 2014

For many photographers, taking pictures of post offices is a passion, and for good reason.  Our country has are over 32,000 post offices, and they come in all shapes and sizes and vintages.  Many of them may seem rather modest and nondescript at first glance, but in the eye of a collector, there's always something interesting to see.

Many post offices are worth a photo because they are historic buildings.  Over 2,500 post offices owned by the Postal Service are on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and many others are leased in historic buildings.  (There's a slideshow of historic post offices that have recently been earmarked for sale here.)

Almost every architectural style of the past 150 years can be seen in the country's legacy of brick-and-mortar post offices, from the Renaissance Revival post office in Galena, Illinois — completed in 1858, it's said to be the oldest government-built post office in continuous operation — to the postmodern post office in Celebration, Florida, designed by Robert Graves for Disney.  Post offices are excellent examples of American vernacular architecture, and almost every one of them holds pride of place in its community.  Taken as a whole, our post offices comprise a very photogenic infrastructure.  

Postal photographers like Jimmy Emerson (aka jimmywayne) and Evan Kalish (of Going Postal and the PMCC) have taken thousands of pictures of post offices.  Thankfully, their work is shared with the public on websites like Post Mark Collectors Club, PostalMag, Waymarking, Living New Deal, and Flickr, and "Save the Post Office" frequently makes use of their pictures.  By documenting the nation’s post offices with such loving care, these photographers have made an important contribution to postal history.  

Contemporary photographers are working in a great tradition that goes back to the 1930s.  During the Depression, the New Deal's Farm Security Administration sent out a team of photographers to document the plight of poor farmers and rural communities and to promote the efforts of the Roosevelt administration to deal with the economic crisis.  The team included some of the country’s best photographers — Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and Ben Shahn (who painted the murals in the Bronx post office).

While they were out photographing the country, they often turned their cameras to the post office.  Their images provide a visual record of an important chapter in the history of the country's postal system.  

These beautiful black-and-white photographs remind us of just how valuable the post office has been in binding the country together.  Many rural post offices were part of a general store and the center of town.  These are the authentic village post offices -- not the faux version the Postal Service has been hawking lately as part of its effort to eliminate brick-and-mortar post offices.

The FSA-OWI photographs have been preserved in the Library of Congress for decades, but they have not been easily accessible, not until this year.  An initiative at Yale University, led by Professor Laura Wexler, has made 170,000 of these photos available online in an archive called Photogrammar.  It’s easy to search, and it has an excellent interactive map.

The Photogrammar archive contains over two hundred photographs of post offices and the postal system in the 1930s and 1940s.  Many are included in the slideshow.  Click on the full-screen icon at the bottom of the slideshow for full effect.  Click on the "Source" for each image to go to the Photogrammar page; from there, click on the Call Number to go to the Library of Congress page.  To see more postal photographs of the era, visit the Library of Congress and search for “post office.”

Prez throws PRC Chair under the bus, WaPo misses the bus completely

December 6, 2014

Josh Hicks has a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post about the announcement that Ruth Goldway has stepped down as Chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, to be replaced by Commissioner Robert Taub as Acting Chairman.  It's entitled “Jet-setting postal regulator replaced amid scrutiny of travel habits.”  

Hicks begin his article like this: “President Obama replaced the globetrotting chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission this week after years of criticism over frequent trips she charged to U.S. taxpayers.”

Hicks provides no evidence that Goldway was replaced because of the controversy over her "travel habits."  Instead, the WaPo just attacks her as “jet-setting” and a “globetrotter,” as if that explains everything.  As for actual facts, Hicks mostly recycles some quotes and statistics from a hatchet job the WaPo’s Ed O’Keefe did on Goldway back in 2012. 

Hicks also draws some details from a November 4 article in the Washington Free Beacon, another attack on Goldway's travels that recycles from O'Keefe's piece.  The Beacon is a project of the Center for American Freedom, a conservative advocacy group, and it's not shy about promoting a right-wing ideology.  On postal matters, it's probably not too far from the Washington Post, which has a track record of ill-informed op-eds endorsing the dismantling of the Postal Service.

The bogus travel issue was examined in a previous post back in February 2012.  It was clear then, as it is now, that attacking Goldway for her travel expenses had nothing to do with the cost of her travels or whether or not her trips are appropriate or necessary.  The attacks are about getting Goldway out of the way.  Now they’ve finally succeeded.

Since Hicks' article is short on facts, here are some numbers to consider.

On Privatization

Good Reading on Postal Privatization

Also: Sarah Ryan's "Understanding Postal Privatization: Corporations, Unions, and the "Public Interest"

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