Archive for December, 2013

No Need for Feds to Deliver Mail; Any Kid Could Do It


It has finally happened.  The federal government in Canada has dropped the other shoe; after decades of installing “superboxes” in all rural and newly-built suburban areas, instead of providing personal home delivery, it has just announced that it will soon install them in the “grandfathered” area: those built areas constructed before the 1980s.

I sensed this would happen when I wrote my “Walk ‘n’ Roll City” vision for cities (elsewhere on this site), and I saw it as an opportunity.  I still do.  Cities are part of a “scalar hierarchy” in which the individual is the most basic, then the others are layered over it (or “nested” around it): 2) family/household, 3) block, 4) neighbourhood, 5) city-region, 6) nation, and 7) globe (see Creating and Using . . .).   My “Walkability” chapter in Beyond the Car (also posted here) described how the loss of corner stores meant that both households and neighbourhood food distribution scales had to compensate; how the former had taken on more food-storage chores (basement areas and larger kitchens) and how bedrooms of teenagers had grown larger to accommodate microwaves and small fridges.  The corner store had once been the block’s refrigerator and close-proximity source for last-minute food orders.  Of course all homes eventually got refrigerators, and last-minute food needs were a good use for the cars every adult now has.  The neighbourhood, except in older areas, is not equipped with food stores; these are now at the hybrid scale of district, half-way between neighbourhood and city-region, well beyond walking distance.

The mail service has lost some of its localness over the decades.  The multiple deliveries each day that were common ended when postal codes were introduced so that machines could read and sort them.  They were fast, but they required transporting all the mail across an entire city to where the expensive machinery was located.  No longer would the mail dropped in nearby boxes be taken to a local substation and sorted by hand, a necessity to allow several deliveries a day possible.  These were the days — before computer typesetting — when daily newspapers had several editions each day.

We got used to reduced deliveries and longer in-transit times, which, after all, could not equitably be matched in the suburbs and rural area, anyway.   This was the cue to private couriers to provide, for a price, what was missing, first to business-to-business deliveries, and now to the deluge of stuff ordinary people order on-line.  Canada Post, though, would not allow its letter carries and the residents’ mailboxes to be used for that “last kilometre.”  The bifurcation of home delivery was set: Canada Post was a monopoly and the other stuff was left to an ordinary competitive market.  Canada Post seems to have understood, as they bought one of the competitors: Purolator.

In any case, the lack of a functioning block scale of life was something I was trying to re-invent in 1992, and I came up with a re-conceived corner store, the “DePoT,” or Delivery and Point of Transfer.  It would provide a place for the Canada Post to drop off its daily deliveries, much like a superbox, a rural post office, or an apartment mail room.  But it would be indoors, encouraging people to meet and chat.  But it would also also be accessible to all the other delivery services, including neighbours wanting to distribute notices for a community event.  Those wanting things delivered to their home could contract with a young person to do that on a daily basis.  This would solve the problem of shut-ins being discriminated by the dropping of home-delivery.

But it would also do other things, so that it could become a real business, perhaps run out of a ground floor of a house (as most corner stores were) or, in the suburbs, a converted double-car garage: it would be where you brought your various “unusables”: garbage, recyclables, and workable items that could be sold, traded, left for anyone to take away for free.  It would allow for more careful sorting than hundreds of thousands of citizens could be trained to do correctly.  The same young people who do delivery work would also do the secondary sorting of trash, etc.  Adults, with kids as apprentices, would also sift through it for items they could repair and rehabilitate for resale.  Instead of City trucks stopping at each house for each of four different streams of stuff each week, they could have specialized trucks, provide by the companies buying the material doing it, and doing it only when the DePoT staff called for it.

These places would also provide meals for latchkey kids whose parents could not get home in time.  They might rent a room or to two a visitor, a la co-housing’s model.  They could also rent things needed infrequently, such as ladders and tree-trimming gear.  The rest of the revenue would come from things that corner stores now provide to a minority without cars, which will grow in the future, as carsharing spreads.  Heck, DePoTs are perfect places for these cars to be located — and they could be used by the DePoT owner who will need some wheels for picking up material for sale and for food preparation.

So Canada Post, you have provided an opportunity.  Will neighbourhood community associations see it that way, and start planning, or will they dig in for a fight?