Sprawl Killed the Mail

The fact that the U.S. Post Office is basically a failing enterprise is nothing new. Figuring out where things went wrong is becoming a common theme in the blogosphere.

(from Bennett V on Flickr)

Jordan Weissmann has this post over at the Atlantic that proposes several compelling theories, but it glosses over one that I've written about in the past: sprawl.

Sprawl is a problem for the postal service for the same reason it's a problem for regular citizens... you have to drive everywhere, gasoline is expensive, traffic is congested, it's hard to get places, etc.

When I think about a postal carrier doing a route in a city, I imagine them taking a push card and walking from the post office to houses and offices. The number of pieces of mail they can deliver per ounce of effort has got to be so much higher than the carrier who has to drive, in his/her truck, from one house, then to the next house, then to the next house.

Of course, for reasons of "fairness" or otherwise, the postal service decided that mail should cost the same amount, whether it's going to a central city or a fringe suburb - whether it can be delivered on foot or has to be driven from the post office in a truck.

Maybe cities would be able to subsidize suburban postal service in a world where the population was heavily living in cities, but today, that's just not the case. Even worse is what's happened in "hollowed-out" cities where postal carriers still have to do routes, but the fact that a significant number of houses are vacant destroys the efficiencies they once enjoyed.

It's one example of what a mess we've got on our hands.