On universal postal services

2018-07-03

in Canada, Economics, Politics

Universal mail services are interesting to consider, both in terms of the relationship between universal social needs and the government provision of services and because of how they illustrate connections between public policy and technology.

It’s important to define what I mean, because it’s distinct from the broader category of delivery services, which are provided by everyone from pizza places to courier companies. In some cases, these delivery services are included in the price of a product, like a desk chair delivered from a shop or home food delivery. In other cases, it’s for a point-to-point transfer of objects provided by the customer to a specific destination, generally with a specific price charged for every pair of start and end locations. The method of delivery also distinguishes universal mail services, since their delivery systems are prepared to deliver an item to every address in the area covered every time they circulate with mail, whereas couriers and house moving companies go from point to point.

My understanding is that the London Penny Post was the earliest universal mail service, naming itself after the innovation of charging a single price for delivery of an envelope between any two points covered by the system. This cuts down a lot on necessary infrastructure, since the envelopes can be deposited in unstaffed depots (mail boxes) and customers can calculate and affix their own postage.

A contemporary system like Canada Post almost certainly could raise more revenue by charging differential rates for delivery across different distances. Even if you think the net benefit is very much worth it for society, you have to admit that shipping anything from Miramichi, New Brunswick to Dawson’s Landing, British Columbia costs the shipper more than delivering from downtown Vancouver to a suburb, or even between two major urban centres. We choose to keep the price the same perhaps partly for simplicity and customer satisfaction, but also as a social policy choice: deciding to emphasize the connectedness of some places, specifically all mail delivery addresses in Canada.

With the decline of lettermail the part of the postal system that is under threat is this routine door-to-door delivery to all addresses several times a week. Canada Post already runs point-to-point package services which compete with Fedex and UPS, with the same feature of a variable rate depending on source and destination. Routine delivery to every address costs the postal service a great deal and is currently the main basis of their whole logistical system, down to trucks circling the streets and mail carriers delivering to doors and mailboxes.

The decline in lettermail is pretty convincingly attributable to the rise of electronic forms of correspondence, particularly for things like utility bills. The volume of letters is falling, but the system still largely costs the same amount to operate. The choice to end routine delivery and switch to a courier service model would probably mean significantly reducing the staff. If maintaining this kind of mail delivery is a public priority, Canadians can doubtless insist that it happen. Canada Post is a Crown corporation, so while its operation has elements of a commercial firm, it’s ultimately state-owned and government controlled.

There are elements of universal mail that are definitely appealing to me, both in terms of the simplicity of being able to buy single units of postage in advance to ship envelopes at your discretion and in terms of the assertion of national community it represents, as an implicit subsidy from those whose shipping addresses can be cheaply reached to those whose addresses are remote, like smaller communities and communities in Canada’s north.

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