Mail Volume Expected to Continue Decline; U.S. Postal Service Adapting Services

As what once was a daily ritual is quickly made obsolete by online communication and commerce, the U.S. Postal service has cut hours, merged mail routes and removed hundreds of thousands of its iconic blue drop boxes.
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dorothy and Andrew Yankanich moved into their $18,000 brick rambler in Wheaton in 1966 and soon began what would become a daily ritual: Walking across the street to the squat blue mailbox and dropping off bills, birthday cards, letters, catalogue orders and whatever else needed to be sent on its way. For 43 years, in rain and shine, through the raising of seven children, the friendly box they could see through their front window's lace curtains was always there.

Until, one day at lunchtime a week or so ago, it wasn't. Yankanich, 82, watched as postal workers hacked at the rusted bolts and hauled the box away for good.

Across the country, stalwart blue "collection boxes" like the one on Flack Street in Wheaton are disappearing. In the past 20 years, 200,000 mailboxes have vanished from city streets, rural routes and suburban neighborhoods -- more than the 175,000 that remain. In the Washington area alone, half the blue boxes that were on the streets nine years ago have been pulled up and taken to warehouses to molt in storage or be sold for scrap, leaving 4,071 mailboxes remaining in the District, Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs.

"It was a nice-looking box," sighed Dorothy Yankanich, 77, looking out on the empty concrete slab across the street. "That was my exercise. Going across the street with the mail every day."

Although some communities have mounted protests -- angry customers in one Maine town planted a snowplow and backhoe in front of a threatened mailbox -- the vanishing boxes are only the most visible sign that something fundamental is changing in the way Americans communicate. The boxes are disappearing because most of us, unlike the Yankaniches, no longer use the mail as we used to.

The U.S. Postal Service says it removes "underperforming" mailboxes -- those that collect fewer than 25 pieces of mail a day -- after a week-long "density test." Snail mail is a dying enterprise because Americans increasingly pay bills online, send Evites for parties and text or give a quick call on a cellphone rather than write a letter.

Combine the impact of new technologies with the gut punch of the recession, and in the past year alone, the Postal Service has seen the single largest drop-off in mail volume in its 234-year history, greater even than the decline from 1929 to 1933 during the Great Depression. That downward trend is only accelerating. The Postal Service projects a decline of about 10 billion pieces of mail in each of the next two years, going from a high of 213 billion pieces of mail in 2006 to 170 billion projected for 2010.

The situation is so dire that the Postal Service, which is projecting a $6 billion shortfall by the end of September despite a recent postage rate increase, will go to Congress this month to seek emergency relief, looking to cut home mail delivery from six days a week to five. Already, the Postal Service has cut hours at hundreds of post offices across the country, including 56 of the Washington area's 386 outlets. It has consolidated routes, dropping 158 delivery routes locally, offered workers early retirement and imposed hiring and salary freezes. Still, said Postmaster General John E. Potter, the service is in "acute financial crisis."

"We're like air," said Postal Service spokeswoman Deborah Yackley. "People just take it for granted that we're always going to be there. Well, if you want to keep your collection box, would you mail a letter, please!"

Back when the Yankaniches were courting, the world was different. They met in 1952 at a turnpike diner in Pennsylvania when Andrew Yankanich, a World War II veteran, was on furlough. They knew each other all of two weeks before he shipped out. So they wrote each other while the U.S. Navy sent him around the globe. "That correspondence went on for two years," he said. "You can't imagine how exciting mail call was every time we hit port." On the strength of what they wrote in those letters, the couple married when he returned and have stayed together for 56 years.

Even now, Yankanich buys a stack of cards every month to mail to family and friends with birthdays and anniversaries coming up. He has a computer and could pay his bills online, but Dorothy doesn't know how to. They're the kind of people who have always known their mailman's first name and leave him presents at Christmas.

But other than holiday cards, they rarely get letters anymore. "A lot our age is gone," Dorothy said. And they were the ones who wrote.

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