Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Goodbye, mail carrier; hello, cluster mailboxes

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 6:35 AM EDT, Mon July 29, 2013
Bob Greene says tough times for U.S. Postal Service may mean the demise of door-to-door mail delivery
Bob Greene says tough times for U.S. Postal Service may mean the demise of door-to-door mail delivery
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Postal service may kill door-to-door service, switch to 'cluster boxes'
  • He says it's an unpopular idea, but postal service must find ways to save money
  • He says if a personalized service like mail delivery were proposed today, it wouldn't fly
  • Greene: Cluster boxes almost inevitable; postal service is in an unenviable position

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Cluster boxes.

If you haven't heard of them yet, you will soon.

They are about to change something basic about American life: the sight of the mail carrier strolling up to the front door to drop off that day's letters, magazines, bills and advertising fliers.

Door-to-door mail delivery appears to be a luxury that the U.S. Postal Service no longer can afford. It's no secret that the Postal Service is in terrible financial trouble; last year the agency lost $16 billion. No business can afford to go on that way without making dramatic changes.

As CNNMoney's Jennifer Liberto reported from Washington last week, the Postal Service has begun telling communities with new housing developments that mail carriers will not provide doorstep, or even curbside, delivery.

Instead, cluster boxes -- groupings of mailboxes at a centralized point in the community -- will be constructed. Homeowners will be expected to leave their houses and go to the nearest cluster box to pick up their daily mail.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

And in Congress, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, is proposing that door-to-door delivery be done away with not just in new developments, but at existing homes, too. He believes the Postal Service could save $4 billion a year this way.

It's hard to counter the argument that if something drastic isn't done, the Postal Service simply won't be able to operate much longer. With Americans relying more and more on e-mail and text messages, and with bills being routinely paid online, the Postal Service isn't bringing in enough revenue to justify the enormous costs of universal mail delivery.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has been pushing for the elimination of Saturday mail delivery, but congressional resistance made him put the plan on hold. Even though Donahoe says that Saturday delivery is no longer fiscally feasible, members of Congress are reluctant to anger their constituents -- both individuals and businesses -- by letting the plan go through.

If the cluster boxes begin proliferating, though, and people are told that the mail carrier won't be appearing at their doors, you can expect widespread unhappiness and high-decibel frustration.

It's not that people don't understand that the Postal Service is on the ropes. But to declare such a fundamental American tradition -- the arrival of the postal carrier at the front door -- past tense will not go unnoticed or uncontested.

It's hardly wild speculation to predict that people will not relish having to go out into the weather every time they want to retrieve their mail. Some won't trust the security of the group mailboxes, no matter how many assurances they receive. They'll be especially vexed on rainy or snowy days when they make the trip to the cluster boxes, only to find that the carrier hasn't arrived yet. For those accustomed to door-to-door mail service, the act of picking up and sorting through the mail in front of other people may feel less private.

Opinion: No more Saturday visits from Bob

Yet the really noteworthy thing is not what may be ending -- the noteworthy thing is what we have taken on faith for so long. If someone in government, today, were proposing to start the Postal Service from scratch, offering the amenities Americans are accustomed to, he'd be laughed out of the room.

Postal Service launches clothing line
All-volunteer post office thriving

"You're saying that this service of yours would be expected to send uniformed workers to every house and business in America?"

"Yes."

"How would the homeowners and business owners summon these couriers?"

"They wouldn't have to summon them -- the postal workers would be required to just automatically show up."

"How often?"

"Every day but Sunday."

"And then you say that they'd carry the letter anywhere in the country? Door to door?"

"Yes."

"So how much would it cost to take a letter from, say, St. Louis, Missouri, to Kansas City, Missouri?"

"Forty-six cents."

"But how can you possibly do such a thing so cheaply?"

"Some people will complain that it's too expensive."

"All right -- but if it's 46 cents to take a letter from one town in Missouri to another town in Missouri, how much would it cost to carry a letter from, say, New York to San Francisco?"

"Forty-six cents."

"What?"

"It would cost the same, no matter how great the distance."

"That makes no sense at all. What about the cost of fuel? How can you charge the same amount for a letter to go five miles as you charge for it to go 3,000 miles?"

"Because that's what people will insist on."

It does sound impossible, doesn't it? It sounds like a plan so farfetched that it would never get off the ground.

Yet it has been an unquestioned part of the way we've always lived.

We no longer live that way. We expect our information to reach us instantly, on screens and phones and tablets, wherever we may be.

But we expect to receive our mail the old way, too.

It's an unenviable position for the people who run the Postal Service to be in.

See you at the cluster box.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT