You might want to try this experiment. On selected days around the
year, near Christmas and not, weekdays and weekends, categorize your
U.S. Mail. In one category is “useful”–that includes bills,
Christmas cards, etc. If you are a coupon clipper, it includes coupon
magazines and such, otherwise not. This category includes the mail
you want to be delivered. The second category is “Junk”, where
advertisements and such you have no interest in goes. This category
is “parasite mail”, the stuff you get because you get mail, not
because you want it delivered to you. The third category is parcel
post: packages, but only from the post office, not from UPS or FedEx
Now, take two measurements: count the items in each category, and
weigh the bulk of items in the category. Keep stats and find the
average daily count/weight. Specifically, on a day (for most people,
on most days) you don’t receive a package, you count it as “zero” in
It is my guess that most people will find that, by count, junk is
in first place, followed by useful mail, followed by packages. By
weight, many will now have packages in first, junk in second, and
useful in third, but some may have junk first still, packages second,
and useful third.
Now, it’s too late to do the same experiment in the past, but think
back–how do you think the statistics would run, say, 10 years ago? 30
What we see is a trend, caused largely by the Internet. More and
more bills are received and paid online, more and more magazines are
read online, and of course, hardly anybody sends letters anymore with
e-mail being so much faster and easier. The main uses of the post
office is tending toward delivering packages and delivering junk.
One could argue already that, nobody wants junk and packages can be
delivered by UPS, etc., so get rid of the post office. It’s possible
that is the best solution, and whether it is or not, it might be the
one that happens, unless…
The other possibility is that the post office reinvents itself, and
I mean radically. First, get rid of junk mail delivery–nobody but
the post office and the junk senders want it anyway. Then, become a
package-only delivery service. Yes, if a paper letter must be sent,
one will either send it as a package or find an electronic
alternative–that requires changes in society, but not huge ones.
Now, here is the big change for the post office–planes, trains,
and automobiles are great for intercity mail transport, but at least
within the more densely populated zip codes, there are more efficient
methods. Heinlein wrote about pneumatic tubes for delivering both
letters and packages arond the city in minutes. Even more efficient
and more scalable would be something like miniture mag-lev trains.
You have tubes big enough for say, 90% of the packages currently
shipped today (the rest can go on a truck) connecting every house to
satellite distribution centers, which are themselves connected in,
say, a ring. Every house with a tube connection (and every house will
get one, just like with electric, water, sewer, telephone, internet,
TV, gas, and in some cities, steam, hot water, or whatever else) will
have a numeric address (an IP address even?). If you want to send
someone a package, you need their IP address. The container has a
chip and keypad so you can punch in the address right on the
container. You hit “send” and away it goes, and your account is
Now, suppose a package is on the way. You get a notice
electronically–you can accept or reject the package–and of course,
the notice shows where the package comes from (and when you order
something online, of course, they tell you where it will come from!
They’d better…). The sender of course can add a personal message to
the notice like “Here is the widget you ordered etc. etc.”. Packages
are automatically rejected if you take, say, more than a week to
accept, so that storage of packages in the system doesn’t overflow.
Like corporate “shotgun” envelopes, the containers are reused–just
put it back in the system unless you want to use it immediately to get
your small deposit back. The system should have a way of cycling
empty containers through cleaning procedures from time to time, and
the system itself have an automatic tube disinfecting system, so this
doesn’t become a disease vector.
The containers can come in Faraday-shielded varieties if you need
to send something sensitive to magnetic fields.
If the USPS starts now, they can get a trial run of the system in
some dense but not too big in area city, say Manhattan. From that, it
would spread to other cities as problems are worked out. This would
prevent the inevitable demise of the USPS while providing a service
that would continue to be useful for decades.