• on Jul 16th, 2012 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 2 comments
    The U.S. Postal Service has a long and storied history of moving mail on rail dating from the beginning of the railroad industry in the early 1800s. Mail was sorted on trains and Post Offices and processing facilities were located near rail stations. Many innovations and changes to rail, including the very development of modern freight rail service, were closely tied to the movement of mail. Today, however, the Postal Service meets its surface transportation needs almost entirely by using trucks owned by highway contractors. By contrast postal competitors and many others have taken advantage of the dramatic changes in the rail industry in recent years and greatly expanded their use of rail, realigning their networks with the nation’s railroads. The Office of Inspector General’s new paper Strategic Advantages of Moving Mail by Rail studied this rediscovered opportunity and found: • Shifting a portion of mail volume to rail without changing the overall transportation network could save $100 million per year. • If the Postal Service made an even greater commitment to rail, altering its network, it could realize even greater savings. • The use of intermodal rail can contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting the Postal Service’s environmental goals. • Because of its lesser sensitivity to fuel price increases and greater control of its own infrastructure, rail transportation has major, long-term strategic advantages over highway. Rail transportation meets the needs of the Postal Service’s competitors and has become the industry standard for long distance surface transportation. Where the use of rail would allow it to meet service standards, should the Postal Service give it another try? Let us know what you think.
  • on Jul 9th, 2012 in Strategy & Public Policy | 1 comment
    Detail from Iron Mountain, Michigan
    Post Office Mural

    Some Americans may be aware that Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general of the United States, appointed by the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. But, unfortunately, our history lessons have otherwise overlooked the Post Office’s contribution to the development of the nation. A new paper entitled Postal Service Contributions to National Infrastructure describes some of the ways the Postal Service was used to support national infrastructure growth. For example, did you know?

    • In the early years of the nation, highly subsidized newspaper rates led to the growth of a national media culture.
    • Funding to transport mail supported a stagecoach industry that carried passengers across the nation. This model was later repeated in the early airline industry when mail contracts supported passenger air transportation.
    • The start of rural free delivery at the turn of the 20th century forced farmers and communities to improve the condition of rural roads as a condition of service.

    In these ways, the Post Office Department helped conquer the great distances of the country, fill infrastructure gaps, buoy burgeoning technologies and industries, and bind the nation together. Postal policy decisions also generated important debates about the appropriate roles of the government and the private sector. In the 1840s, a new age of low postal rates and two-way communications was initiated in part because of private sector competition to the monopoly, and the United States was a latecomer to Parcel Post compared to other nations because of concern by the railroads and small rural stores over the incursion into their areas of business. By the 1960s, the Post Office was struggling with inefficiency and a large deficit. The President’s Commission on Postal Organization (known as the Kappel Commission) argued that the Post Office should run more like a business. Since then, the Postal Service’s secondary role in contributing to the expansion of the national infrastructure has lessened. Today, the decentralized and fragmented nature of the digital age may be creating new infrastructure gaps and under-served citizens. Is there again a place for the Postal Service in serving the nation’s infrastructure needs? Or is the Postal Service’s role of supporting new infrastructures behind it? What do you think?

  • on Jul 2nd, 2012 in Post Offices & Retail Network | 11 comments
    Could post offices be redesigned to improve their appearance and ease of use, perhaps modeled after the pleasant, comfortable designs of other retail outlets? The business world has seen a recent explosion of interest in design. Apple is a great example of a company that has reached an astounding market capitalization based largely on its focus and skill in design, both of its products and retail spaces. Starbucks has successfully positioned its retail locations as a “third place”— neither home nor work — where customers can savor a cup of coffee and enjoy a comfortable atmosphere for work or leisure. Retail bank lobbies use smart, neat designs that facilitate efficient customer transactions. Post offices, for the most part, do not seem to inspire the same feelings. Although some retail outlets are more attractive and functional, many post offices are nondescript and lack visible customer tools, such as a list of services and prices. Their absence can cause unnecessary delays and frustration. Post Office counters sometimes appear cluttered and disorganized, and generally unappealing. Post offices in classical older buildings are an exception, and they often serve as an attractive part of a town’s landscape. However, the interior design doesn’t always match the elegant external architecture. As Apple and Starbucks have demonstrated, design is not merely an aesthetic issue; it has consequences for the financial performance of a consumer-facing business. Should the U.S. Postal Service redesign post offices as part of its retail optimization plan and make them more appealing and user-friendly? Could such design improvements yield appreciable commercial or financial benefits? Or would design improvements be too cost prohibitive in the Postal Service’s current financial condition? Tell us — and show us — what you think. If you love the design of a particular Post Office, let us know where it is and post a picture if you can.

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