Postal Woes, and how it relates to bicyles. (And trains!)

Doing my part to keep the Post Office alive.

The “holiday season” is one of the few times in the U.S. of Something-Something that people even think about the United States Postal Service (USPS), aka “the post office.” (In the course of this ranty post it will alternately be referred to as the Post Office, the Postal Service, or USPS.) And since the holidays mean the wait at the post office can quadruple from what it normally is, these thoughts are usually not positive. Every year or two postal rates go up, which creates more grumbling. As a government agency with well-paid employees, the USPS is an easy target for the hate, especially amongst the Right and free-market libertarians.

But when one starts to really think about it, we still have it pretty good. I can write a letter, stuff it in an envelope, affix a 44 cent stamp to the upper right corner as long as the envelope weighs one ounce (28g) or under and is not “oddly shaped”, drop it in a big blue mailbox, tack it to the outside of my mailbox, or hand it to a letter carrier. Within the span of two days on average this letter will be delivered to its recipient, even if said recipient is 3,000 miles away on the other side of the country. And I don’t even have to lick the stamp anymore! All for 44 cents! Now would UPS or Fedex deliver a document for that little? No.
But the USPS is hurting. As computers become more and more embedded into our lives, the need for physical mail lessens. Things like automatic bill pay has reduced the need to write a check and send it in the mail. Why write each other on cute stationery with a pen (handwriting?) when we can keep up with every painfully boring minute detail of our friends’ and acquaintances’ existences via The Book Of Face? 
As its traditional revenue streams dry up, the USPS has been hemorrhaging money. So much so that they are forced to act. Now I will say that I don’t envy the position they are in, and there are going to be tough choices if we follow the notion that services provided by a government agency are somehow supposed to be self-sufficient. But the solutions they offer up are draconian and non-creative: slow down first class mail, close post offices, lay off employees. I’m not the only one who thinks these “solutions” suck: Rep. Peter DeFazio from Oregon (who doesn’t represent Portland but rather Eugene and I still like him* (and) **) had this to say: “this so-called Postmaster General should be fired because of a lack of any imagination or initiative…One hundred thousand people laid off! Oh, that’s just what we need in America today — let’s lay off 100,000 people. Great idea!” Apparently the legislative branch of our government agreed with DeFazio (somewhat), as the USPS agreed to delay any changes, closures, and layoffs until May 15 while Congress “works something out.”

Besides “teh interwebz”, the Postal Service has predictably pulled out the spectre of labor issues and unions as another source of their woes. Now I’m not going to say things like retirement plans aren’t an issue (and I don’t know that much about retirement plans and the like to really comment on it), but I think there’s another bogeyman as well. Direct mail. While First-Class Mail is their biggest revenue stream, all that junk mail that stuffs your mailbox is probably second. And those direct mail companies have quite the influence on the USPS. So much so that while postal rates for shlubs like you and me will undoubtably go up soon, the direct mail companies will still enjoy choice rates because the Post Office doesn’t want to piss off their biggest customers. So we’ll still get oodles of flyers for Papa John’s which we’ll promptly dump into the circular file, or if we’re in a more enlightened municipality, a recycling bin.*** So sustainable! Talk about Occupy Wall Street correlations: we, the 99% of mail users are going to get the shit end of the stick while the 1%, the direct mailers, will still have it good.

While I do realize that times change, what may happen with the Postal Service depresses me. I have a soft spot for real mail.**** This is due to being an “old-school” zinester. When I got into the crazy world of zines and mini-comix in 1996, mail was the way everything was done. (Al Gore was still inventing the internet.) When I wanted a zine, I would either put a buck or two in an envelope or one of my zines and put it in the mail. Then within a few weeks I’d receive something back. Then I would write a letter back to the zinester telling them what I thought of the zine. I made many pen-pals this way, some who would become close friends and remain friends to this day. There are similarities with the world of blogs, of course. I also count people I met through this blog as friends as well, and believe me, I do feel validation when people comment, even if it is to say those Lambda pedals are fugly. But to me one letter, postcard, or just plain cool piece of mail that finds its way into my post office box trumps ten comments on the blog.***** Commenting on a blog is a matter of keystrokes and an internet connection. Mailing a letter is a matter of a physical object finding its way into the mailstream. And you have to pay for it each time. Much more effort.

I don’t want the USPS to fail. Nor do I want it to turn into a free market enterprise like UPS or Fedex. So I’ve been thinking of ways the Postal Service can improve and save money. And of course I started to think about bicycles.

Now using bicycles to deliver mail is not a new concept. As soon as bicycles became practical postal services around the world used them for mail delivery. And some countries still do. The United States used to use it extensively. This interesting link from talks about how bicycles were used to deliver mail between Fresno and San Francisco during the Pullman Strike of 1894.

Well, what about now? Surprisingly, the United States still has bicycle mail delivery! The catch is: it is in only three cities, which I learned from the above utilitycycling link: Sun City, Arizona, St. Petersburg, Florida, and Miami Beach, Florida.

An actual honest-to-god USPS bicycle delivery vehicle spotted in St. Petersburg, FL, Summer 2011. Yes, it is a Worksman Cycle Truck, just like the one I own. Photo courtesy of flickr user (cobrabyte)

Three cities? Is that the best we can do? In 2011?
How about…most cities?

I realize that bicycle delivery is not practical across the board. I don’t propose it in rural areas, for example. But dense cities and small towns, like…Portland? Why don’t we see this? The USPS has a fleet of a quarter million vehicles. Just think of the money required to purchase, maintain, and fuel those 250,000 vehicles, not to mention all the emissions being pumped out into the air. I don’t know how many vehicles could be replaced by bicycles, but I’m guessing it would be a fair amount.

And think of what it could do for domestic bicycle production: the reason why the USPS is using Worksman cycle trucks for mail delivery in the three cities where it still happens is Worksman still makes its bikes in the US, fulfilling government obligations of “buying American”. It was the same with Royal Mail in the UK using Pashley for its postal bikes. I’m not suggesting that the Worksman built bike is the answer (and I’m saying this as a Worksman cycle truck owner!) but it would be the most likely player for the big government contract if it came because there’s no competition. Imagine if some other home-grown bike companies came into the scene with more modern cargo bikes, and could compete on the bid. Not framebuilders, bike manufacturers. I like the idea of all the artisanal independent framebuilding craftsmen (and women!) building  their 15-30 bikes per year, but that ain’t going to provide the USPS with a fleet. We need some large scale manufacturing. A fat government contract for say 250,000 bicycles might do a good job of jumpstarting that.

I realize that my plan isn’t well thought out (yet) and there are obstacles. I’m sure there would be some resistance from postal employees and their unions if bike delivery was unilaterally prescribed cross-country. So why don’t we test it in a few places first? I’m sure Portland would be a good start. If there’s not enough regular letter carriers that would be willing to ride a bike, well, there’s plenty of people in town that would clamor for that job. For example, I went to the UPS “cattle call” for seasonal bicycle delivery last month, and there were way more people wanting the job than openings. USPS talks a bunch about environmental commitment, let’s see it try something different to reduce its carbon footprint. Because stamps is one thing, delivery is another.

And where does trains, yet another one of my passions, fall into this scheme?

Via flickr user Mike Miley

It’s probably no surprise that mail predominantly traveled by rail at one point. Most long-distance trains had a Railway Post Office car on them, which acted like it sounds: as a post office. Postal employees sorted mail en route, and then dropped off mail at the various stations along the line. This was common from the middle of the 19th Century into the middle of the 20th Century. After World War I some First Class mail moved by air but it was as domestic Air Mail. It got to its destination faster but one had to pay a premium price.

When passenger rail started its nosedive after World War II as automobiles and then airlines eroded at its market share, the subsidies provided by the Federal Government via the Postal Service contracts was a way to keep these faltering passenger lines afloat. As long as the trains had their Railway Post Office cars there was some cash flow coming in to counter the hemorrhaging losses suffered by pretty much every railroad at the time. This all came to a grinding halt in September 1967 when the Post Office cancelled all of its “mail by rail” contracts. The changes to the Postal Service brought on by the introduction of ZIP codes, including regional sorting centers, made the need for sorting en route obsolete. Now First Class mail could travel by whichever way was most practical, which meant more and more by truck and plane than train.

Via flickr user vrkrebs

While there were many reasons why railroads were failing, this was the last straw. The venerable Santa Fe Railroad lost $35 million in annual revenues. To stave off complete failure, the federal government took over the majority of remaining passenger rail service with the creation of Amtrak in 1971. Its skeletal network, a pruning of what used to consist of our passenger rail network, remains virtually unchanged forty years later.

Now what if mail started to move by train again?

Much of the United States First-Class Mail moves by air if it has to cover a long distance. There’s no other way for my letter from Portland, Oregon to get to Portland, Maine in two days. It’s great that it can move so fast, but does it need to? Especially in this day and age of e-this and i-that. If I really needed instant communication with someone “Down East”, I can email them. Or call them. (I can’t really telegram them anymore, as Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006. I can however use a company called iTelegram for the honor, if I felt like spending $19 for a 100 word message that will get there in 2 to 4 days.) Anyways, maybe we should introduce domestic Air Mail again? So what if it was discontinued in 1977! One could pay a premium price for that letter to go from Portland-to-Portland in two days, or pay a regular First Class rate for it to get there a day or two slower. And that First Class mail can get there by train.

Think about it. Rail is more efficient and inherently better for the environment than trucks and certainly better than airliners spewing out CO2s into the atmosphere. And America’s passenger rail network is still hurting. Putting a Post Office car on passenger trains would definitely boost Amtrak’s revenues, and would encourage the reopening of long-gone routes. (I’m thinking of the Seattle-Portland-Boise-Salt Lake City Pioneer for one.)

As I’ve stated above, I don’t have all the answers. But I have ideas. If the Post Office wants to survive the 21st Century, it needs to get creative. And maybe by embracing some Nineteenth Century technology, it might find salvation?

What do you think?

UPDATE 28 MARCH 2012: Here is a good commentary piece by Jim Hightower on all this postal nonsense.

*Because I am from Portland, I am supposed to make fun of Eugene.
**I drunkenly talked his ear off at the launch party for the “Trek Portland” bicycle many a year ago. The free beer was flowing, what can I say?
***In more enlightened countries like “The Land Rush Comes From” one can simply tack a “No circulars” sticker to one’s mailbox and not get that shit. Unfortunately that doesn’t work here.
****I am not going to use the derisive term “snail mail”, foisted upon us by the “early adapters” of the internet.
*****P. O. Box 14185, Portland OR 97293-0185. Hint hint.


5 thoughts on “Postal Woes, and how it relates to bicyles. (And trains!)

  1. Jon–Those pedals want an apology. And cartoony Care packages are always good…LuckyChow99–I know! I would have never thought there was still remaining bike delivery service. I'm almost scared to talk about it, for fear that it might go away.

  2. I too had no idea there were still bikes used in the USPS anymore! Cool bit of info. On the rest of the post,my friend,you're preaching to a choir member here. I have 0 interest in letting go of my mag subscriptions (those that I can hold in my hand,and reread 20 years from now after blowing dust off them),and always feel much more better when I get something from the mail-dude than just an email (though those are nice when from friends as well). Having grown up in the coal-fields of VA,90% of all the rails I saw were hauling…coal,so I have the same interest in passenger (and other forms) rails as you…it's just cool :)The Disabled Cyclist

  3. Amen! I use the USPS as often as I can. It's cheaper, faster, and they never seem to squash the boxes like UPS does! When I order on Amazon, I always request the free delivery, cuz, you guessed it, it always comes USPS! I live in a small, rural town, and the PO has had to close early on Sat, but we adjust.The train photo looks really familiar. I think that's the mail car at the Sacramento Train Museum, California State Parks.

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