The Postal Service Crisis of 2020 caught many off guard with its mysterious removal of post office boxes and the uncertainty over postal voting; even the name of new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was on everyone’s lips during his ongoing Congressional grilling.
The mail slowdown, which at this point has lasted more than two months, has many Americans suddenly studying every movement of the United States Postal Service (USPS).
Nancy Pindus, from the Urban Institute, was a student at the Post Office. Pindus is lead author of a 2011 Urban Institute study commissioned by the Postal Regulatory Commission, an independent regulatory body that oversees the USPS. Titled “Measuring the Social Value of the Postal Service,” the mission’s goal was to both study the economic benefits of the USPS and how it helps the communities it serves. Crucially, this includes means beyond simple mail delivery.
“These things don’t go away,” says Pindus Reverse. “So little else has been done, people are calling me now for a study that’s 10 years old.”
The study breaks down the benefits of the USPS into eight distinct, measurable categories. These range from those that fit the mission of the USPS, such as economic benefits and civic pride, to others that are more surprising. The environmental benefits of the USPS, for example, are often overlooked.
To understand how USPS can have environmental benefits, it is important to understand the size of its litter. There are 42,000 zip codes in America, and delivery to all, not to mention military bases and overseas territories like American Samoa and Puerto Rico, accounted for 1.34 billion miles of travel by the USPS in 2019.
The USPS has a fleet of vehicles matching the size of its large customer base, more than 232,600 vehicles. Many of these vehicles are far from green: a 2019 sustainability report shows that “a large part” of the fleet is made up of older vehicles. Since 2006, when Congress passed a law stipulating that the Postal Service must prefund health benefits for its retirees through 2056, the USPS has had to contribute more than $5 billion to that fund — money that could be spent on a more efficient fleet was attached. Democrats want to fund a cleaner vehicle project, but no progress has been made yet.
That didn’t stop the USPS from making meager improvements: the sustainability report mentions the purchase of 100 hybrid electric vehicles and 100 two-ton hydraulic hybrids, as well as tests with three Nissan Leafs and three Chevy Bolts. .
But Pindus has found the USPS conserves energy even without a modern fleet.
The reason comes from what is known in transport as “first mile, last mile”. The phrase refers to two major challenges that arise in any form of public transport, whether transporting packages or people: what does the very first part of their journey look like, and similarly, what looks like the very last part?
USPS handles the first and last mile for package carriers like UPS, FedEx, and Amazon, especially in rural areas.
“USPS reduces gas consumption by mapping energy-efficient routes, using one carrier to serve a large area, and providing last-mile delivery for other delivery companies, thereby reducing the number of vehicles that travel the same route,” reads the institute’s Urban Study.
“USPS reduces fuel consumption by mapping energy-efficient routes…”
Assumptions are useful here: imagine a case of blueberry jam being sent by FedEx from Maine to Montana, two states with many rural areas. Rather than finding a FedEx store in a town miles away, the jam can be dropped off at the local post office. Then, in the middle of the trip, FedEx acts as the courier, bringing the package to an urban area in Montana. Finally, the package is brought by USPS over “the last mile,” taking it to a much-loved home in rural Montana.
The Postal Service was able to reduce the number of trips each time it was involved: it ended the need for a long drive to an urban destination and was able to prevent a FedEx truck from going out to specifically reach one person. The fact of having established routes prevented several vehicles from circulating.
“That’s fewer people needing to get out in their cars,” Pindus says.
There’s a lot more to understand on the total impact of the USPS on American society, environmental and otherwise.
Pindus knows it. His study recommended a number of metrics to observe the finer details of the scenarios playing out every day across the country, from the median size of a postal worker’s service area to the number of alternative energy vehicles in a fleet. The funding halted the conduct of the study until its completion – originally the project was to be executed on three documents.
She hopes the current crisis will take away the luster from the stable anonymity of the USPS and cause “people to pay a little attention” to the huge branch of government and the work needed to improve it. There are a multitude of scholarships on the history of the USPS, including its long history as a place of stable employment for black Americans, but there are far fewer independent scholarships on the how he could move forward.
“It’s not the first time the Postal Service has had to deal with changes in society and technology. Let’s face it, it’s been going on since revolutionary times,” Pindus says. “There’s no reason to think he can’t adapt to this while maintaining those values.