The Postal Service Goes Urbanist: How New Mailbox Regulations Encourage Density

November 8, 2019

The postal service, in many ways, has been a quintessential example of stodgy government, slow to react to the changing needs of citizens. Its budget is imbalanced, and its primary service—letter mail—is less necessary each year. Millennials and other young Americans don’t value the service as much as older Americans, and their tastes will dictate the direction USPS takes moving forward. Thankfully, in one important way, USPS is ahead of the game.

The postal service has a small but important role in all new development in the United States. Before a developer finalizes plans and property lines with zoning authorities, they must notify USPS so that the federal agency can plan to serve the new homes with mail.

Last year, the postal service updated its guidance for the types of mailboxes available to serve new developments. Now, barring exceptional circumstances, new housing developments will get mail at shared “cluster” mailboxes, rather than having it delivered to door mail slots or individual curbside mailboxes.

For years, USPS has worked to limit the growing number of addresses it must serve in an effort to stem cost increases. Door delivery is extremely labor intensive, and more government employees lugging heavy bags on foot means more wear and tear on letter carriers’ bodies, which will be paid for by USPS, its users, and taxpayers. Similarly, driving mail from house to house burns extra fuel and degrades mail carrier vehicles faster than delivering mail to a smaller number of centralized locations. Providing door delivery of mail costs the government twice as much as centralized delivery.

These delivery modes made sense in the past, when people were reliant on mail to communicate, pay bills, and conduct business. But now, letters and bills make up a much smaller part of the mail mix, while advertisements and e-commerce parcels constitute a bigger share. Most mail today isn’t timely or urgent, and young people have responded by checking their mail less often than their older peers. In this environment, cluster boxes make more sense. Walking to the end of your driveway five days a week is not much less burdensome than walking a few blocks one or two days a week.

With less need to deliver mail close to new homeowners, USPS’ mailbox regulation change removes an incentive (inherent in the previous guidelines) for developers to space homes far apart within new neighborhoods. In doing so, the agency made clear that it is not the job of federal taxpayers to pay more so that some municipalities can mandate sprawling development archetypes, with substantial building setbacks, large minimum lot sizes, and broad minimum lot widths, rather than denser, cheaper-to-deliver-to ones.

Centralized mail delivery also provides a social focal point in new housing developments. The civic function of mail facilities is one of the core purposes of any government mail operator. Arguments about closing post offices quickly morph into discussions about the role of postal facilities as gathering places in local society. Cluster boxes bring neighbors together with a common purpose in a way mail delivery to each property does not; and unlike post offices, they’re privately owned and maintained infrastructure. For millennials who rarely use the mail, post offices were never going to be important social gathering places. But neighborhood mailboxes are not all that different than neighborhood parks as infrastructure of civic life. When these spaces are abundant and convenient, the need for federal buildings as subsidized gathering places is limited.

The postal service is one of many groups that has an implicit say in how new homes are built. In seeking to be a prudent steward of taxpayer dollars, the USPS has allowed the development of a centralized civic space that developers can adapt to local needs, while removing an implicit federal subsidy for the building of sprawling single-family neighborhoods.

Nick Zaiac is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Fellow in Commercial Freedom at the R Street Institute where his portfolio includes housing, postal and transportation issues. He holds a master's degree in economics from George Mason University. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Ali.
Catalyst articles by Nick Zaiac