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Monday
Oct222012

Servicing the Unserviceable


A mailman takes a smoke break on the bumper of his mail truck (Photo courtesy of Hajee)

Why neither dogs nor emails are postal service's biggest threat 

William Fulton, recently outlined how the current fiscal environment highlights the need to create physical environments that are in scale with a place's ability to service it. Using a recent TischlerBise study for Charlotte, North Carolina, that describes how the organization of development has a real impact on the solvency of its fire department, Fulton reiterates what the likes of we, Strong Towns, and others have long known: without perpetual growth, the Ponzi scheme of the last sixty years has been exposed. 

The TischlerBise analysis is a timely one. But the problem is not unique to fire fighters and Charlotte but extends to all city services that are spread thinly amongst low density, disconnected developments. Another service that has taken a hit of late is the postal service. Think of how much money could be saved if mailmen could walk again and mail trucks could take more direct routes. Think of the savings on healthcare alone (healthcare is the single most noticeable item on the USPS's shortfall list). Imagine all the mail trucks that could be reused as parcel haulers for couriers and other small transporters of too-large-to-carry parcels. If the postal service was permitted to be a largely foot-based delivery method for "the last mile" of the delivery chain, it would return toward solvency. If only the spaces between destinations permitted it.

As homes and business dispersed in the years following the advent of the automobile and a host of government sponsored measures to cater to it, services that relied on door-to-door movements increasingly became strained. Milkmen, ice-cream trucks, and other small, non government backed merchants were the first to go (although, admittedly, ice cream vendors do, on occasion, remain in their brightly colored and menu-clad vans. However, they’re usually largely stationary and require kids and consenting adults to migrate toward a much louder siren song). USPS's long-distance shipping is already largely contracted through FedEx. USPS delivery vans and trucks are becoming delinquent in their maintenance and, in more and more cases, the postal service is requiring centralized mailboxes in new developments.

Many will say that with the advent of email, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, and other attempted replacements for letter writing, attempting to save an antiquated system of communication is a waste in and of itself. They may have point. But like land-based telephone lines, redundancy and back ups for communication tools is essential to a healthy economy, an informed populace, and loving grandmothers everywhere (at least those not bombarding their loved-ones with emails and "poking" them on online social networks).

A mailman on his routeBut, for a second, let’s assume for a moment that we do away with the USPS. Let’s give physical parcel delivery entirely over to the private sector, which seems to be doing ok in the race for instant delivery dominance. Assuming prices would stay competitive and affordable for sending a birthday card or a rent check, letting outfits like UPS and FedEx manage our deliveries would seem to be a reasonable proposition. Yet the critical failures of our inefficient transportation and circulation networks limit productivity and diminish the energy efficiency and profitability for these companies and cripple their service to businesses and families. As e-commerce evolves, so does the number of parcels being traded and delivered through such services. As traffic congestion, front-door dispersion, operating costs, and healthcare costs increase, the level of service for home delivery drops. This would be catastrophic for what could be a significant segment of our retail economy. Private operators or not, that is a risk we cannot afford to take.

The solution lies in creating and interconnected network of hubs, transfer points, and streets that allow a diverse set of customers to be dependably served by parcel delivery services. Air freight must be seamlessly connected to regional rail that then offloads to a nimble fleet of small trucks (perhaps decommissioned USPS vehicles) to deliver loads to decentralized nodes. From these nodes, pedestrian-possible streets, sidewalks and environments must take foot-based delivery personnel to businesses, homes, suppliers, and consumers.

The potential savings to government (federal and local) and delivery companies are immense. Fewer trucks ensure conserving fuel and maintenance costs. Increased employee mobility allows for more dependable delivery and limited healthcare costs as compared to inefficient drive-and-drop models. Likewise, with the savings comes a higher level of service. If delivery to the end user is humanized and done on foot, the chance of traffic delays and late and/or mistaken deliveries lessens. Externalized benefits would include more security from eyes on the street.

One could easily plug in any public or quasi-public service to compute the savings and efficiency that would be gained by operating on a traditional neighborhood framework. If one were to aggregate the savings from reduced equipment needs, reduced fuel costs, fewer delays, and smaller healthcare obligations across all of our infrastructure and public services, the fiscal picture would be not only more sustainable but more resilient to economic shocks. It is time for a less fragile and more prosperous way of organizing our cities and neighborhoods. 

 

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