The Postal Service delivers the last mile, almost: Changing modes of delivery


The Postal Service helps out FedEx and UPS by providing “last mile” delivery of their parcels, and two recent studies argue that the Postal Service should privatize its retail and mail processing networks and instead “concentrate on what it does best” — last mile delivery.

But mail delivery ain’t what it used to be.  More and more, the Postal Service is leaving the last stretch of the last mile to its customers.

If you’re used to getting the mail delivered to your curbside mailbox, you can look forward to going down the block to pick up the mail at a cluster box unit.  If you get your mail at the door, you may need to put up a mailbox at the curb, or you too may be traveling to the nearest cluster box.  “Centralized delivery” is the wave of the future.

In January the Postmaster General announced that the Postal Service would be switching over to more centralized delivery points (i.e., cluster boxes) to improve delivery efficiency.   “We’ll be looking at some centralized delivery, rolling that out across the country – no major push, but starting to move on that,” said Donahoe.  The PMG said the expansion of centralized delivery would take time, but it would start this year.

“It’s an opportunity to save some money and also provide better service,” said the PMG, “especially with parcel lockers that we’ll be installing at the same time.”  That’s a reference to the Postal Service’s new “GoPost” automated parcel delivery lockers, as discussed in this excellent post on Going Postal.

The amount of money that could be saved by changing modes of delivery is considerable.  The Postal Service currently spends about $25 billion to deliver mail to more than 150 million homes and businesses.  The average annual costs for city delivery are $353 for door delivery, $224 for curbside, and about $160 for centralized.  For rural delivery, the costs are $278, $176, and $126, respectively.

A study on “Modes of Delivery” done by the USPS OIG showed that the Postal Service could save more than $4.5 billion a year by shifting 35 million homes and businesses from door-to-door to curbside.  It could save another $2.8 billion by shifting 52 million homes and businesses from curbside to a cluster boxes.  If the door-to-door delivery points were shifted to centralized instead of curbside, it would save another $2.2 billion.

Congress seems ready to go along with the conversion plan.  Congressman Darrel Issa’s proposed legislation already has a provision pushing centralized delivery, and Senator Tom Carper says Issa’s idea to shift mail delivery from door delivery to cluster boxes may be included in some manner in the final bill.


A plan without a plan

For new residential developments, the Postal Service can use whatever mode of delivery it wants, and that usually means cluster boxes.  As a USPS spokesperson explains, “Where the builder used to have a choice on type of delivery, we’re choosing for them – or at least moving in that direction.”

The Postal Service is also looking to change the mode of delivery whenever it can.  As a postal spokesperson told Post & Parcel in late January, the first areas to experience a change to cluster boxes will be business parks, industrial buildings, and shopping malls where mail carriers currently go business-to-business to drop off mail.

For residential neighborhoods, the Postal Service isn’t supposed to change the mode of delivery without the customer’s permission.  According to the “agreement clause” in section 631.6 of the Postal Service’s Postal Operations Manual, a customer’s signature must be obtained before conversion from one mode of delivery to another.

In April 2012, the Postal Service revised the POM to give itself more authority to determine the mode of delivery when adding new delivery points.  But the passage about the agreement clause is still in the POM, and there’s nothing in the revised POM saying that the Postal Service can unilaterally convert the mode of delivery for existing addresses.

Nonetheless, one postal manager in St. Louis recently sent a letter to the St. Louis Apartment Association (SLAA) stating the following: “The Postal Service has revised the POM giving the USPS the autonomy to make changes to current mode of delivery.  The Postal Service is not currently unilaterally changing any current modes of delivery.  But it now has the authority to do so.”

That manager may have it wrong about the POM, but his letter to the apartment association is another example of how the Postal Service is pushing current residences to convert to centralized delivery.  His letter says that the Postal Service will pay for conversion to cluster box units now, but owners who pass up the offer risk having to pay for it themselves later.

The Postal Service is also finding other ways to convert current delivery points to cheaper modes of delivery.  Under some circumstances, the Postal Service can change delivery for existing residences even without the owner’s permission, like when the safety of letter carriers is a concern. The dangerous dog rationale for ending door-to-door delivery seems to be occurring with increasing frequency.

It’s clear that the Postal Service is, as the PMG put it, “rolling out” more centralized delivery.  There’s obviously a plan behind all this, but the Postal Service has yet to file a request for an advisory opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission.  Eventually, there will be so many news stories about delivery conversions that it will become clear that the Postal Service is making a change in service on a nationwide scale and it will have to submit a request for an advisory opinion.  In the meantime, the conversions are taking place on what is supposedly an ad-hoc basis, as if there were no plan in place.

In a previous post back in January, we noted several news reports about places where the mode of delivery was being changed.  Here are a dozen more.

Dangerous dogs and drug deals

Wichita, Kansas: Back in March, residents of one block in Wichita were told that they would no longer get the mail delivered to their door because a dog was loose in the neighborhood.  The dog hadn’t bitten anyone, and the owner told postal officials that he would keep the dog fenced in when the mail is delivered, but the Postal Service said that’s not good enough and now everyone on the block will need to install a curbside mailbox or rent a box at the post office.  Plus, the change will be permanent  “That’s our policy,” said Scott White, USPS supervisor of customer service. “Once we’ve changed the mode of delivery, we can’t change it back.”

Indian Creek, Kansas: Last week the Postal Service informed residents of one block of Indian Creek that because a dog had threatened a mail carrier, they would need to collect their mail from a cluster box unit at the end of the street.  One resident said he not heard of anyone getting bitten and wondered if it was just a cost-cutting measure, with the complaint about the dog used as an excuse.  Richard Watkins, a postal service spokesman in Kansas City, said the change had nothing to do with cost cutting and is a rare instance.  “We’d be the first to say it’s more efficient,” he said. “But that is not why, and that is not how we approach changes in the mode of delivery.”  Watkins said that there had been several dog incidents on the block over the years but did not provide specifics. Residents of other blocks in the neighborhood have recently had to move their mailboxes to the street, also because of dog issues.

Hermitage, Pennsylvania: Mail delivery was suspended in May at a 200-unit apartment complex in Hermitage after a letter carrier entered a hallway and found three teenage boy engaged in what he thought was a drug deal.  The manager of the complex doubted that the carrier saw what he alleges and the police are not investigating, but it looks as though the incident means the end of door delivery.  The Postal Service wants the owner to install a cluster box unit.  That could take weeks, though, and in the meantime, residents need to go to the post office to get their mail.  Many of them don’t have a car, and it’s a forty-five minute walk to the post office.


Something has to give

Cranberry, Pennsylvania: In April, USPS manager Donald Snyder sent a letter to Cranberry township stating that it’s up to the Postal Service to determine which modes of delivery to new addresses are most efficient and cost effective—and not the new residents.  In response, Cranberry’s Board of Supervisors passed a resolution voicing their opposition to the cluster mailbox system because it could cause traffic backup when residents are trying to collect their mail, slow down emergency responses (first responders depend on clearly marked curbside addresses), and cause problems for mail that doesn’t fit into the boxes.  Tad Kelley, a Postal Service spokesman for Western Pennsylvania, told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review that moving to a centralized delivery sites is inevitable. “It’s cost-effective and safer for our employees,” he said. “Mail volume is dropping, and we have to provide universal access at low cost. Something has to give.”

Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Some postal customers in Oak Ridge received letters from the Postal Service last week telling them that they need to install curbside mailboxes as part of the ongoing effort to help the federal agency stop hemorrhaging money.  The letter states that the request is being made because “letter carriers can service more mailboxes in their vehicles than they can by walking door-to-door.”  The Postal Service informed customers that they had ten days to switch to the curbside mailbox before “mail received at the box will be returned to sender” as if no mail receptacle existed.  The letter also states that this policy change “supersedes any policy placed into effect by any previous postmaster,” adding that customer age, length of time at a residence, or ease in providing service does not determine how service is provided to the community.  [Update: The Postal Service subsequently sent out another note retracting the earlier statement.  A USPS spokesperson says, “We can’t mandate or demand that they move their mailboxes.  We can only ask and encourage.”]

Barstow, California: A few months ago, a US Navy veteran moved into a fixer-upper in Barstow, and she hasn’t received any mail since then.  The Postal Service claims she arbitrarily moved her mailbox without approval, but the woman says her mailbox is just where it was when she moved in, next to her front porch (she has photos to prove it).  The Postal Service wants her to set up a curb-side mail box because that’s how the rest of the neighborhood gets its mail, but the woman points to her next door neighbor’s house which has a mailbox also located on the porch.  The Postal Service later changed its story and said the reason the customer needed to move her mailbox was that they’re requiring all new residents to move their mailbox to the street.


Burdening small businesses

Omaha, Nebraska: Omaha Postmaster Keith Reid announced last month that the businesses in the Old Market area (known for arts, dining, and entertainment) would no longer receive door-to-door delivery.  He asked his managers to review which business districts and neighborhoods would produce the biggest savings if delivery were switched over to cluster boxes, and he met with business owners to explain the changes.  The Postal Service plans to make the conversion in Old Market by the end of the summer, and the rest of Omaha’s businesses can also expect to make the change eventually.  Reid also said the Postal Service was studying the possibility of ending door-to-door residential delivery in Omaha.  The owner of one Old Market shop complained that now he would d have to send an employee to pick up the mail, which is considered an unfair burden for the Postal Service to place on his business.  “It pushes their costs to me,” he said.

Pocahontas County, West Virginia: In May, USPS manager Misty Osborne and Marlinton postmaster Janice Goode informed elected officials that cluster mail boxes will be coming to Pocahontas County. Osborne said the Postal Service would install a cluster box at the courthouse, free of charge, for a limited time, to serve the twelve offices in the building.  Beginning this summer, cluster boxes will not be voluntary and installation will not be free.  The County Clerk expressed concern that a cluster box would be impractical at the courthouse, due to the large volume of outgoing mail.

Pendleton, Oregon: The Postal Service told businesses in Pendleton last week that it plans to stop delivering mail to the door and will instead drop the mail at centralized cluster boxes.  The Postal Service plans to add blocks of eight to sixteen mailboxes and parcel containers on or near Court, Dorion and Emigrant Avenues.  It is still unclear which postal customers this will affect since the Postal Service is still deciding where and when to add them.


From post office to cluster box

Freistatt, Missouri: The post office in Freistatt closed on Good Friday for an emergency suspension over a lease dispute (even though, according to a reliable source, the landlord offered a sweetheart deal).  The Postal Service said that rural delivery would be too expensive, so it’s looking to install a cluster box unit on village land next to the community center.  The village clerk was informed that it would take some time to install the unit because the Postal Service has “hired an architect” for the project.

Rockfield, Indiana: The Rockfield post office closed last week because of unsafe building conditions.  The office is on the POStPlan list, and it was supposed to have its hours reduced to two a day.  According to USPS spokesperson Mary Dando, the community was overwhelmingly in favor of curbside delivery using rural mail carriers, but centralized collection boxes outside the former Rockfield office will be offered as well. 
”That doesn’t mean that the service is ended. In fact, we will do everything that we can to provide the best service available to our customers,” says Dando.


The times they are a changin’

Cabana Colony, Florida: Last month postal customers in Cabana Colony, a community of about 700 single-family homes, were told that door-to-door mail delivery would be eliminated and everyone would need to put up a mailbox at the curb.  Then last week the Postal Service said it was all a big mistake and the letter should never have been sent. “Cabana Colony residents do not have to move their mailboxes,” a USPS spokeswoman said. “USPS apologizes for the mixed messaging.”

Halfmoon, New York: In May, the Postal Service told owners of forty new houses in Rolling Hills Estates, a subdivision in Halfmoon, that they could not have their mail delivered to curbside mailboxes since all new developments must use cluster boxes.   Unfortunately, the developer had not set aside land for community mailboxes.  Seems that the rest of the subdivision gets curbside delivery because it was built several years ago, before the cluster box rule went into effect.  For a while, it looked as though the new homes wouldn’t get mail delivery at all — kind of a problem for houses that cost over $300,000 — but postal officials had a change of heart and decided that mail would be delivered to curbside mailboxes after all.  Postal Service spokesperson Maureen Marion explained that the agency has some leeway about applying the cluster box rule, and it would be unfair to require community mailboxes in a neighborhood planned six years ago.  Centralized delivery “wasn’t really a top regulation then,” she said. “Times have changed, and now it is.”

(Photo credits: Carrier handing woman mail; cluster box adIndian Creek resident now getting mail at cluster box; letter carrier delivering the mail to an Old Market business in Omaha; Rockfield, IN post office; residents of Rolling Hills Estate in Halfmoon.)

Related posts:

Got Mail? Go get it — the Postal Service has other plans (August 13, 2012)

Coming sooner or later: An advisory opinion on modes of delivery (January 27, 2013)