The Postal Service crisis of 2020 caught many off-guard with its mysterious removal of Post Office boxes and uncertainty about voting by mail; even the name of new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was on everyone’s lips during his ongoing Congressional grillings.
Nancy Pindus, of the Urban Institute, has been a student of the Postal Service. Pindus is the lead author of a 2011 Urban Institute study commissioned by the Postal Regulatory Commission, an independent regulatory agency that oversees the USPS. Titled “Measuring the Social Value of the Postal Service,” the purpose of the assignment was to both study the economic benefits of the USPS and how it helps the communities it serves. Crucially, this includes ways beyond just delivering the mail.
“These things don't go away,” Pindus tells Inverse. “There’s so little else that’s been done, people are calling me now for a study that’s 10 years old.”
The study breaks down the USPS benefits into eight separate, measurable categories. These range from those that fit with the USPS mission, like economic benefits and civic pride, and others that are more surprising. The environmental benefits of the USPS, for example, are often missed.
To understand how USPS can have environmental benefits, it’s important to understand the size of its scope. There are 42,000 zip codes in America, and delivering to all them, not to mention overseas military bases and territories like American Samoa and Puerto Rico, amounted to 1.34 billion miles of travel by the USPS in 2019.
The USPS has a vehicle fleet to match the size of its wide customer base, over 232,600 vehicles. Many of these vehicles are far from green: A sustainability report from 2019 shows that “a large portion” of the fleet is composed of older vehicles. Ever since 2006, when Congress passed a law stating that the Postal Service must pre-fund its retirees’ health benefits through 2056, the USPS has to pay over $5 billion into that fund — money that could be spent on a more efficient fleet has been tied up. Democrats want to fund a cleaner vehicles project, but progress hasn't been made yet.
That hasn’t stopped USPS from making some meager improvements: The sustainability report mentions purchasing 100 electric hybrid and 100 hydraulic hybrid two-ton vehicles, as well as testing with three Nissan Leafs and three Chevy Bolts.
But Pindus found the USPS conserves energy even without a modern fleet.
The reason comes through what’s known in transportation as “first mile, last mile.” The phrase refers to two major challenges that come up in any form of public transportation, be it carrying packages or people: What does the very first part of their journey look like, and similarly, what does the very last part look like?
USPS handles the first and last mile for package carriers like UPS, FedEx, and Amazon, especially in rural areas.
“USPS reduces gasoline consumption by mapping out energy-efficient routes, using one carrier to serve a large area, and providing last-mile delivery for other delivery companies, thus reducing the number of vehicles that are traveling the same route,“ reads the Urban Institute study.
"USPS reduces gasoline consumption by mapping out energy-efficient routes... "
Hypotheticals help here: Imagine that a case of blueberry jam is being sent through FedEx from Maine to Montana, two states with lots of rural areas. Rather than find a FedEx store in a town miles away, the jam can be dropped off at the local post office. Then, during the middle part of the journey, FedEx acts as a courier, bringing the package to an urban area in Montana. At last, the package is brought by USPS on “the last mile,” taking it to a very appreciative home in rural Montana.
The Postal Service was able to reduce the amount of travel whenever it was involved: It stopped the need for a long drive to an urban destination and was able to keep a FedEx truck from going out to specifically reach one person. Having established routes kept multiple vehicles off the road.
“It's less people needing to go out in their car,” Pindus says.
There’s a lot more that needs to be understood about the total impact the USPS has on American society, environmental and otherwise.
Pindus knows it. Her study recommended a number of metrics to observe the finer details of the scenarios that play out around the country every day, from the median size of a Postal worker’s service area to how many alternative energy vehicles are in a fleet. Funding halted the study from being carried out to completion — originally, the project was going to be executed across three papers.
She hopes that the current crisis will take the sheen of stable anonymity off of the USPS, and get “people to pay a little attention” to the massive branch of government and what work is needed to improve it. There’s a wealth of scholarship around the history of the USPS, including its long history as a place of stable employment for Black Americans, but there’s far less independent scholarship on how it could advance forward.
"This is 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 is no reason to think it can't adapt to that and still maintain those values.”