The Postal Service leaves the driving to us

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Among the issues being examined by the Postal Regulatory Commission as part of its Advisory Opinion on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) plan to close 3,652 post offices is how far away the nearest post office is to each post office being studied for closure.  In its initial presentation to the PRC, the Postal Service provided a chart showing typical distances from one post office to another. 

The chart was problematic for several reasons: It reflected data for about 13,500 post offices that earn less than $100,000 a year in revenue, rather than illustrating data for the 3,652 post offices actually being considered for closure in the RAOI.  But more important, the chart was based not on actual driving miles, but geographic distance — as the crow flies.  It wasn't hard to imagine that driving distances would be much greater.  (All this was discussed in an earlier blog post, "The Smartest Guys in the Room.")

Many of the questions posed to the Postal Service as part of the Advisory Opinion have involved efforts to get better data about these distances.  On September 7, 2011, the Postal Service finally submitted to the PRC a 78-page document with data showing the actual driving distance to the nearest post office for each of the offices on the RAOI list.  (The Postal Service also submitted a related document on driving mileage, but it is "non-public.")  The document, however, was in a format that made it very difficult to analyze (a pdf instead of a spreadsheet).  The PRC has requested that the data be resubmitted in more usable form.  

In the meantime, we have done some preliminary analysis of the data.  Because of the formatting issue, it was not possible to extract data for all 3,652 post offices, but we have been able to gather data for almost 3,100 of them.  Here's what we've found:

First, the average driving distance to another post office is nine miles, and the median is 6.4 miles — considerably more than what was suggested by the chart submitted by the Postal Service, which made it look as if most post offices were five miles or less from another post office.  

This table compares the numbers on the chart originally presented by the Postal Service, which used geographic distance for 13,500 post offices, with the new data provided by the Postal Service, which contains driving miles for the post offices on the RAOI list:

As the chart indicates, about the same percentage of post offices are less than 2.5 miles away, whether measured in geographic distance or driving distance.  However, a far larger percentage is more than 10 miles in driving distance as compared to geographic distance.  While only 11% were more than 10 miles if you're a bird, about 30% of the post offices are more than 10 miles away in a car.  In the category of more than 20 miles, the contrast is even greater: 2% for birds versus 9% for cars.

Distance in miles

Geographic distance

Geographic distance

Driving distance

Driving distance

 

Number of post offices

Percentage

Number of post offices

Percentage

0 – 2.4

2,306

17%

544

18%

2.5– 4.9

4,283

32%

608

20%

5 – 9.9

5,409

40%

1,036

34%

10 – 19.9

1,236

9%

636

21%

> 20

260

2%

268

9%

Total

13,494

100%

3,092

100%

For some communities, the situation is downright ridiculous: A hundred post offices (3%) of the 3100 are over 30 miles in driving distance from the nearest post office, and there are a dozen that are over 80 miles to the nearest post office.  (Some in Alaska have already been removed from the RAOI list precisely for this reason.)

The data provided by the Postal Service thus indicate, as anyone could have guessed, that the driving distances are much greater than geographic distances, and the inconveniences being imposed on postal patrons are much greater than the Postal Service wanted to imply.  But it's not just about inconvenience.  We are dealing with a significant amount of fuel costs and environmental impacts, as well as a lot of time lost driving back and forth to another post office.

It’s almost impossible to estimate how many miles we’re dealing with.  The numbers are about distances to another post office, not how many people use each post office, and it’s hard to predict how many people will need to make extra trips to another post office, and how often   Plus, some people may actually live fairly close to the post office that will remain open, perhaps almost as close as they are to the one that may close (as James Boldt, the USPS man running the RAOI, kept telling the PRC in his recent testimony).  

But consider this hypothetical:  The average driving distance to the nearest post office is 9 miles — 18 miles round trip — and let’s say two hundred people will make that drive twice a month (as an extra trip, not out running errands to that neighboring town anyway).  If all 3,652 post offices on the list were to close, we’d be talking about 340 million miles of extra driving and $56 million in fuel costs.  

By closing thousands of post offices, the Postal Service may find a way to save, as it has estimated, something like $200 million, but a good chunk of that savings will simply be passed on to its customers.  And given just how green the Postal Service claims to be, we should also consider the impact of over 300 million miles of extra driving: That's 150,000 tons of CO2.

The Postal Service wants to seem reasonable about its plans to close post offices, and it has spent months telling people that with a budget deficit of several billion, it's only logical to "optimize" the retail network and cut the workforce by a third.  But the Postal Service doesn't seem to be looking at the big picture and considering how its cuts will affect workers, families, customers, rural communities, struggling neighborhoods, small businesses, and the environment.  That might be appropriate behavior if the Postal Service were a private corporation with stockholders demanding maximum profit.  But the Postal Service is part of our government, and the people of this country deserve better.

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