Disappearing mailbox holiday blues

According to the Denver Post, “About 200,000 mailboxes have disappeared from streets and rural routes—more than the 175,000 that remain—in the past 20 years,” due to declining mail volume. The USPS attributes this drop in snail mail to the increased use of other communication mediums, such as the Internet and cell phones, not to mention the relative ease of online bill paying. And in this struggling economy, the Postal Service has to make sacrifices just like everyone else.

According to an (irate) August 14th letter from USPS president Ted Keating to President Barack Obama, the Postal Service has reduced its workhours by 29 million over the same period last year as well as 8 million hours of overtime and 3,000 management positions. Its revenues are down 8.4%. With numbers like that, continuing to pick up at empty mailboxes equals precious pennies wasted. One Boston Globe article, for example, claimed that every penny per gallon increase in gas costs the Postal Service an extra $8 billion a year.

But what if the mailboxes aren’t totally…totally empty? Isn’t your letter to Grandma important? To determine whether a mailbox needs to be removed from an area, the Postal Service uses a process called “density testing”. If, after monitoring a box for six days, they find that it receives an average of 25 pieces of mail per day or less, they will consider removing the mailbox from that location.

Still, some are concerned that the change negatively affects those who need the mailboxes most, such as the elderly, who may not be as proficient in using a computer or cell phone, and who may have difficulty reaching a faraway mailbox. Not to worry, though. Gary Sawtelle, corporate communication specialist for USPS Tampa, assured me that Tampa Bay, at least, won’t even notice the difference: “Most recently, six months ago or a year ago, we’re not pulling any single mailboxes from corners anymore. We only remove a box if there are multiple in a location. If we don’t need two boxes there, we’ll pull one.”

There are currently 118 collection boxes in St. Petersburg, down from 138 last year. Of those removed, all of the boxes removed were “buddy”, or duplicate boxes. In Clearwater, currently 40 boxes are still standing, down from 57 last year, and all but one of the 17 removed were buddy boxes. In Tampa, there are 261 boxes left last year’s 313, and only nine of those removed were not buddy boxes.

This is music to the ears for people like me, who find the quaint charm of a letter in hand irreplaceable. Let’s face it: a text message “I love you” will never take the place of a handwritten one. The Postal Service understands that some of us just aren’t as comfortable with change as others, which is why most cities try to maintain at least one mailbox per square mile. To find a mailbox near you, visit http://usps.whitepages.com/post_office.[image-1]

While visiting my grandparents in Cleveland last week, I found myself needing to mail a very important, date-sensitive package to an upcoming writer’s conference at Eckerd College. What ensued, in the midst of the ever-present Gerard household holiday hubbub, was a twenty-minute labyrinthine car search for a rapidly disappearing commodity: the blue mailbox.

I was sure there used to be one next to the Whole Foods. Wasn’t there one on the corner by Giant Eagle? Gone, both of them. But where did they go?

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