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The U.S. Postal Service Needs to 'Get Up To Speed,' And Quick!
USPS should forget about the Segway and convert all routes
 to curbside and centralized delivery.

By T.L. Righter - August 2002

The Postal Service is fighting a battle it cannot win. An army of letter carriers, clad in polyester, trudge door to door each day delivering the nation's mail. Their speed? About 2.5 miles per hour! Meanwhile, inside the homes and businesses of America, E-mail and other electronic communications zip along the nation's information superhighway literally at the speed of light - 186,282 miles per second. It gives a whole new meaning to the term ZIP.

Each year, about 1.8 million new delivery points are added to the postal system. Yet, the Postal Service is cutting personnel and can't afford additional employees to help service the additional delivery points. The Postal Service can't afford additional personnel, and grow with the economy, because E-mail and other speed of light communications are diverting paper mail to electronic mail, facsimiles, etc, - undermining postal revenues. At some point in the next couple of years an already stretched Postal Service will have been stretched too thin. The Postal Service needs to get up to speed, and quick.

Unfortunately, change at the Postal Service might as well be measured by geological periods, not accounting periods. Already, the Postal Service's new "transformation" plan is dead in the water. A key component of the plan, negotiated (flexible) rates for mailers, has already been shot down by lawmakers. (Shouldn't universal service also entail universal rates?) Now, for all practical purposes, postal reform is dead in 2002, and real (institutional) change may only be possible by the equivalent of an asteroid impact.

It was an asteroid that ended the age of the Dinosaurs. The asteroid hastened the development of smaller, nimbler creatures that could better react to prevailing conditions. So it will be with the Postal Service. Smaller, nimbler companies may ultimately out-tech and outmaneuver the Postal Service. However, the Postal Service isn't finished yet, it has at least the equivalent of one geological period left.

The U.S. Postal Service has within its abilities several options to get up to speed. However, the Postal Service is potentially driving down the wrong road in searching for ways to do this. Currently, the Postal Service is testing Segway HTs on the sidewalks of America, when it should be enabling most every letter carrier in the nation to drive down the roadways of America. Curbside (or centralized) delivery of every delivery point in America, accomplished from motor vehicles (jeeps, CRVs, LLVs, etc.), will enable the USPS to be nimble, competitive, and efficient in the 21st century. The Segway, neat as it is, is not sufficient for the task.

The Postal Service recently purchased 40 Segway HTs, the ultra-tech scooters, at a reported cost of $9,000 each for a total of approximately $360,000. The Segways are currently being tested by the USPS in several cities throughout the United States to determine if they can enable letter carriers (who walk their routes) to deliver mail more quickly. Though the scooters, which travel at about nine to ten miles per hour, are quicker than a human walking at 2.5, they are not one of the answers to the Postal Service's speed problems.

Here's why: (1.) The best reason, discussed in more detail later, is that vehicle deliveries (via LLVs, CRVs, jeeps, etc.) are much more proficient and faster. (2.) Already in deficits, the USPS may not be able to afford a fleet of Segways. There would be training costs, maintenance costs, repair costs, etc. etc. (3.) They may not be inherently safer than walking door to door, thereby not contributing to the containment of injury expenses by the USPS. (4.) I still have not heard that the USPS has figured out a way to transport the Segways to the carrier's routes. At about 70 pounds apiece, the weight of the Segway would make it difficult for many carriers to remove and load the Segway from their vehicles. Moreover, the USPS in some areas of the country is moving to add Casual employees to the delivery workforce. These Casuals are required in many cases to use their own vehicles. (5.) My post office has about 40 walking routes. Where would 30-40 Segways and their recharging equipment be stored? (6.) I doubt that Segways would be allowed right-of-ways through customer's lawns. As such, the use of Segways would require carriers to "square off" deliveries by using only sidewalks and streets. Then, in most cases, the carrier would still have to dismount to place mail in the customer's mailbox. All in all, Segways would be "neat". Unfortunately, their costs are prohibitive and their efficiencies are debatable. (It would be funny, however, to one day in the future see a letter carrier zipping down the street on a Segway being chased by a dog. Of course, now you see the point about safety.)

To be cost efficient, Segways must present significant savings to recover their acquisition, training, maintenance, and service costs. The latest reports from field testing indicates that time savings are "a wash". Though the speed of a Segway is faster, by the time loading, unloading, mounts, dismounts, and other time factors are considered, there appears to be no time savings over current walking deliveries.

The conversion of all letter carrier routes to curbside and centralized delivery, however, presents significant opportunities for time savings and increased efficiencies. Currently, rural deliveries and all new deliveries are accomplished by curbside or centralized delivery from vehicles. However, many letter carriers in cities and towns across America still trudge door to door. The conversion of these "park and loop" routes to curbside delivery presents a number of cost saving factors:

  • Curbside and centralized deliveries (mounted) are on average 50% more efficient than walking deliveries.
  • Mounted deliveries are compatible with mail automation initiatives. Letter Carriers who walk to deliver the mail almost literally need a third arm to handle the various types of sorted mail (carrier cased letters, flats, Delivery Point Sequence (DPS) mail, third bundle mail such as circulars and other full coverage mailings).
  • Injuries are minimized with mounted deliveries. Park and Loop routes are very labor intensive and contribute to a large number of injuries. (About 15,000 trips, slips, and falls are experienced annually by letter carriers on walking routes.) And because the work is so intensive and arduous, some letter carriers are in no hurry to return to letter carrying duties after sustaining injuries. (Although injuries for most carriers are real, some linger on light and limited duty courtesy of sympathetic doctor's notes.) Mounted deliveries would minimize foot, leg, shoulder, and arm injuries while also potentially reducing dog attacks and other injuries. Mounted deliveries would also minimize the resistance to carrying that some reluctant carriers exhibit.
  • Automation is enabling longer street delivery times, and many letter carriers are already at their limit in what they can physically carry on the street. Ten years ago letter carriers on average used about three and a half hours in the office sorting mail and about four and a half hours on the street delivering. Now, carriers are spending about two and a half hours in the office sorting and five and a half hours on the street (the routes are longer). In the future, street delivery time for each carrier could be close to eight hours once full automation is realized. For many carriers that are currently on walking routes, the thought and reality of eight hours on the street is outlandish and troubling. Mounted deliveries will allow carriers to physically (and mentally) accomplish the street times and deliveries of tomorrow.
  • Postal managers across the nation are presently perplexed and flummoxed by carrier office times. Many carriers are in no hurry to begin their arduous street deliveries. The office is nice and cool. Outside, it's hot, cold, raining, snowing, etc. Mounted deliveries will help make the day more palatable for letter carriers presently walking door to door. (I've seen more than a few letter carriers who were about the sorriest workers you could find anywhere in any company in America when they had walking routes who became decent and/or even above average carriers once they obtained mounted routes.) I believe labor relations between letter carriers and management would improve if all deliveries were mounted. (Note that labor relations between carriers and management are most confrontational in major cities where the multitude of walking routes still exist. Grievance costs may also be reduced - and so might sick leave!)
  • If the Postal Service is going to capitalize on the Internet Revolution its best chance may be in capturing parcel business from the mail order/Internet order market. Segways can't carry too many parcels, but the new CRVs can!
  • Best of all, the Postal Service won't have to buy one new vehicle. In fact, after a few thousand routes are cut nationwide there will be leftover vehicles to send to rural carriers who currently use their own vehicles.

The Postal Service needs to transform and get up to speed quick. Converting all existing walking deliveries to curbside and centralized deliveries is a step in that direction. It's one of the few operational options that currently exists for the USPS to pursue, now that postal reform at the political level is currently dead in the water. Politically speaking, the move to total mounted delivery is probably the least politically charged of the several "major" options available to the USPS. It's certainly more politically viable than ending Saturday delivery. Moreover, the USPS has a leg to stand on in this case. The Universal Delivery mantra is a centerpiece of USPS commitments to the public. Converting current park and loop routes to mounted delivery would standardize mail delivery across the land. Customers in the cities would receive their mail just like customers in the suburbs and outlying rural areas. Such a move would also be fair and advantageous to the Postal Service. Why should the Postal Service be beholden by precedent with keeping walking deliveries (for example) to houses built in the 1930s? Just because that is the way deliveries were accomplished then doesn't mean that is the way deliveries should be accomplished now.

Converting all routes to mounted deliveries would be beneficial to the Postal Service, to letter carriers, and to postal customers. The Postal Service would realize greater efficiencies, letter carriers would realize better working conditions, and postal customers would potentially realize earlier and more consistent delivery times.


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