Everyone’s Got Mail

Sunday’s WaPo has an item on new subdivision homeowners who are hopping mad about…communal mail boxes:

Across the nation, the U.S. Postal Service increasingly is delivering mail to communal cluster boxes as a way to keep pace with booming residential growth while controlling labor costs. The new strategy, aimed at new developments in fast-growing areas such as Clarksburg, Leesburg and Waldorf, saves the postal service time and money.

There are those who will take a certain grim satisfaction in forcing people to make the long trudge to the mailbox everyday (but how may will drive…think of the gridlock!). There are others who might, possibly, take satisfaction from seeing postal bureaucrats try to trim costs and increase efficiency (well, it is a start…however Eastern-bloc this approach may be).

Reading through the article, however, it never occurred to me just how important something as simple as an individual mailbox is to some people. Who knew?

I suggest, however, that if homeowners really want to get the boxes they feel they deserve, the best and surest way to do so is through postal competition. Break the Post Office’s hold over mail delivery (and mailboxes), and you can have whatever sort of box you want, wherever you want it. So long as you’re willing to pay for it.

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18 responses to “Everyone’s Got Mail”

  1. On the bright side, suburbanites will be forced to get to know their neighbors. 🙂

    I couldn’t agree more about the USPS’ monopoly. Even if it were legal to compete with them, I suspect they’d remain dominant because they’re such an enormous, far-reaching, well-intrenched business. But I’d sure like to see somebody try.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Norm, Postal delivery is another one of those “location variable costs” that Ed Risse and I ramble on about. I’m no defender of the U.S. Post Office, and I think competition would be a good thing, but we would be deluding ourselves to deny that competitors would face the very same problem as the postal service: Scattered, low-density development is more expensive to provide with postal delivery. Clustering mail boxes is a rational response on the part of the Post Office to cope with dysfunctional human settlement patterns. If the USPS had a competitor, I’d wager, the competitor either would cluster the mailboxes or it would move to a differential pricing structure for delivery — sure, we’ll deliver amil to your door, but we’ll charge you more for the service.

  3. Norman Leahy Avatar
    Norman Leahy

    I disagree, Jim. There’s a probable market response to this, but we’ll never know because competition for mail delivery doesn’t exist.

    By the same token, we do know that where the P.O. lacks a monopoly, in package delivery, there’s no problem with private companies like FedEx, UPS and others bringing things not just to your door, but to you, personally. You pay for the extra service. But considering their returns on investment, they seem to be making out all right — no matter how “dysfunctional” our settlement patterns may seem to some.

    Let the market decide what’s possible — not an antiquated federally-endorsed monopoly.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I liked the story about the guy in Nebraska who had a special mailbox built with a chute into his basement. He got himself put on every junk mail list he could find, and then heated his house by burning pulverized junk mail.

    That might be difficult with a community mailbox.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Norm, I totally agree that competition is the way to go. A private-sector player might well devise a solution to the problem that USPS could not. All I’m saying is that competition won’t make the underlying problem — disaggregated housing patterns — go away. If the USPS (or a private competitor) resumed direct-to-home delivery, people living in densely settled urban centers would have every right to complain because they would be, in effect, subsidizing postal delivery to suburban homes.

  6. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    Isn’t delivering the mail a requirement of the federal Government? I believe it is in the Constitituion as a function of the Federal Government.

    I do not want a private sector firm handling my mail.

  7. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    I was surprised to see Ruckers story and surprised to see a post on this.

    It is very old news. This happened to Single Family Attached dwellings 40 years ago.

    Guess what? They work great and as Waldo observed, the postal kiosk, when well located, has become a positive social focal point in many Dooryards.

    Jim Bacons is right about scattered locations and competition.

    Reid raises a good point, do you trust Microsoft to deliver your mail?

    Now we need to improve governance so we again trust Uncle Sam.


  8. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    This is another one of those items that has baffled the heck out of me. Why does everyone have these county mailboxes in an urban area? Out in Calif. the USPS imposed the community boxes. They were well designed to accomodate around 20 houses within a block or so of each other. Each person had a key to their mailbox, eliminating mail theft and the ever present homebased business junk. It’s also one less thing these homeowner associations have to complain about.

    So what’s the big deal?

  9. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    Good point.

    Also these regs only apply to new construction.

    Single Family Detached dwellings on one acre plus lots on Culpeper Street closer to the Court House and main street still have at the door delivery, not at the curb boxes.

    Retroactive application would save millions nation-wide.


  10. Anonymous Avatar

    No one has mentioned the cost of delivering the mail or the security provided to individuals. At one time the mail was delivered door to door by your letter carrier, this was when first class mail carried the burden for paying for all of the mail delivery. Americans quit sending letters first class. Now Third class advertising pays for the burden of mail delivery. The USPS is still one of the best values for delivering the mail to every house every day. You only get what you pay for cheap delivery.

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    We have a communal mailbox – at the post office. The reason being that our rural mailbox was subject to theft and vandalism. Now we get in the car and drive to get the mail. Once every week or so.

    And we pay extra for the privilege of renting a box.

    Meanwhile, in the town of Marshall, practically across from the Post Office, the ford dealer and the 7-11 have mailboxes on the street. Go figure.


    Bacon is making the assumption that city delivery is less expensive. It may not be. I imagine that letter carriers and other employees get some kind of pay differential for living in expensive areas. And getting around is much slower and more expensive for the trucks.

    Clustered mail boxes are common in town where mail is delivered to the lobby of the building, so how is that a response to dysfunctional housing?

    If the facts turned out to be that rural delivery costs no more, or even less than, urban delivery would you say that rural customers have every right to complain because they would be, in effect, subsidizing postal delivery to urban homes, or that they were paying more for inferior service?

    You might think that is far fetched, but we know that rural residents pay less for transportation, even though they travel farther. It may be a higher proportion of their income, but it is well established that travel costs are less.

    Why should it be any different for the post office? Granted, the volume of mail per customer might tip the scale back again, but I think you would be hard pressed to find an environmental argument that supports the idea that paying for better service via more junk mail makes for a more functional settlement pattern.

    Anybody actually know what the cost of mail per person is outside the SMSA’s vs inside? Anybody know what the cost is, junk mail aside? Anybody know the social cost of junk mail?


    One advantage of U.S. mail is that mail fraud is a federal offense. In one of my previous jobs I helped investigate mail scams.

    One of my stock responses to telemarketers is to tell them that I’m really interested in their product or service, but I don’t hear very well, and I’m a little slow at my age, please contact me by mail so I can study your offer….. You would be amazed at the excuses they offer.

  12. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    You only get what you pay for cheap delivery.

    Plus all that junk mail.

    Mail pulverizers, anyone? After all, it seems to be a renewable resource.

  13. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, If it’s significantly cheaper to deliver mail in the country than in the city, then the USPS should reflect the difference in its rates or mail delivery routines. My underlying principle is not to favor city over country or vice versa but to charge location-variable costs, then to let individuals decide make their own trade-offs as to where to live.

  14. Rodger Provo Avatar
    Rodger Provo

    Jim Bacon –

    The country needs to make a greater
    contribution to conserving our trees to improve our air quality,
    but our postal service’s revenue
    stream depends on junk mail to keep
    it alfoat.

    Junk mail wastes energy to produce
    and deliver. It also wastes trees.

    We need to reform our junk mail laws and find others means to fund
    the postal service.

  15. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    geeze .. what a crock…

    my father in law lives in a gated subdivision in NC. The developer built a “house” full of post office boxes just inside of the gate.

    Everybody and their dog – picks up their mail at the same time they run an errand…

    what’s the problem?

  16. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    What is the problem?

    If mail is important and if the gated enclave is larger than a big Alpha Dooryyard or a small Alpha Cluster so that walking to the “gate” is like getting your paper, then it means everyone has to drive to get their mail.

    What happens in a few years when the folks inside the gated enclave are not comfortable driving?

    You also might ask what is the problem with gated enclaves?

    The short answer is that it is almost impossible to build Balanced Communties out of them unless the entire Alpha Community is gated. We called those City states.


  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    okay.. so I’m going to reveal a deep dark secret about my life.

    we have… hold on to your hats .. a post office box .. 3 miles from our home.

    Now ask how many times I have walked or biked to this PO Box.

    Zilch. Zero. Nada. silly me.. I want to live a few more years and when I do go.. I choose not to do it as road kill.

    The mail.. hey.. it might sit there for two whole days until I haul something to the dump or go get a haircut or milk for my brides morning cereal.

    I almost never take the trip JUST for the mail… and usually I don’t do the trip until I have at least 3 errands… and then I actually get obsessive about it because I arrange the errands so that none of them require left turns..

    Someone also referenced UPS so the other day.. I ordered something small.. that the website said UPS would deliver.. then I get an email saying that UPS had turned the delivery over to the US Mail via some kind of partnership agreement.

    So.. EVEN UPS.. uses USPS…

  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “What happens in a few years when the folks inside the gated enclave are not comfortable driving?”

    How about what happens if that same development also provides shuttle bus services?

    Cabs also.. dispatch from point a to point b and back… very flexible.

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