The United States Postal Service (USPS) is now requiring new developments to install centrally located mailbox clusters instead of individual mailboxes. This type of centralized delivery system is more efficient for postal carriers but comes with its own unique set of challenges.
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What USPS Centralized Delivery Is and How It Works
Centralized mail delivery is a way for the postal service to minimize the number of stops on its routes by grouping mailboxes for multiple residences together into a single cluster. Centralized delivery is already used in most apartment buildings, with multiple mailboxes clustered together near the main entrance or in a central hallway. Many businesses also use mailboxes clusters for all the companies in a building or multiple buildings in an office complex.
The same sort of mailbox clusters is now being utilized in multi-family condominium and townhouse developments and traditional residential neighborhoods. Instead of having individual mailboxes per home, mailboxes for multiple houses are clustered together at the end of the street. Residents have to walk a little further to get their mail each day, but the postal carrier only has to make a single stop for multiple homes.
In typical residential development, the individual mailboxes are clustered together in a single freestanding cluster box unit (CBU). A CBU might contain 8, 12, 13, or 16 individual mailboxes, along with one or more compartments for larger parcels. The housing development can choose to use a generic-looking CBU or tailor the look to the neighborhood’s style guidelines. Some neighborhoods mount their CBUs inside a small shelter to keep the rain and snow off residents when they retrieve their mail. Some of these sheltered CBUs look like bus stops, complete with overhead lighting. Pillar-mounted CBUs typically cost $1,200 or more, depending on the type of construction and the number of individual mail compartments.
The mailboxes in a CBU are typically made of metal and come with their own key-operated locks. The postal carrier has a master key that unlocks all the boxes in a cluster, either by opening compartments individually or opening the unit’s entire front or back. Individual residents then use their personal keys to unlock their own mailboxes.
The USPS requires all new housing developments to install mailbox clusters instead of individual freestanding mailboxes. Using this type of centralized mail delivery is less expensive than traditional decentralized delivery systems, and the USPS is currently under significant pressure to reduce costs.
Benefits of Using a Centralized Mailbox
There are several benefits to using a centralized mailbox cluster for both postal workers and residents. Here are the most significant benefits.
Saves the USPS Time and Money
The biggest benefit of centralized delivery is to the U.S. Postal Service and its workers. Delivering lots of mail to a single location instead of multiple locations individually saves the postal service significant time and money.
It’s certainly a lot quicker to deliver mail to a dozen or so mailboxes at a single stop than it is to go door-to-door or street mailbox-to-street mailbox. That means a single carrier can deliver more mail in a day and that the USPS may deliver the same amount of mail with fewer carriers.
Less starting and stopping between individual mailboxes – and making fewer stops, period – also reduces the wear-and-tear on USPS vehicles. Minimizing stop-and-start driving also results in significant savings on fuel consumed.
Putting a number to it, the USPS says it costs about $353 per year to deliver mail to an individual’s doorstep or $224 per year to deliver to a curbside mailbox. Shifting to cluster mailboxes cuts that cost to just $160 per year for each address. A report by the Office of the Inspector General says that moving completely to centralized delivery would save the USPS $5.1 billion per year.
Costs Less Than Traditional Mailboxes
Centralized mailboxes also save consumers money. That’s because individual mailboxes within a cluster typically cost less than freestanding mailboxes.
Reduces Risks to Postal Carriers
Postal carriers face a lot of risks in the course of doing their jobs. Centralizing delivery locations means that carriers face less risk from poorly maintained sidewalks and unleashed canines.
Holds Several Days’ Worth of Mail
The individual compartments in many CBUs are larger than many types of door-mounted or freestanding mailboxes. This means that a cluster mailbox can hold larger envelopes without them being folded. The larger mailbox can also hold several days’ worth of mail deliveries, which comes in handy when the resident is out of town. This reduces the need for the resident to visit the post office to pick up oversized or excess mail.
Improves Mail Security
Many people believe that cluster mailboxes are more secure than traditional curbside mailboxes. The use of locking individual mailboxes certainly provides more security than freely opened traditional mailboxes. In addition, since most centralized mailbox clusters are highly visible, thieves and vandals are less likely to target these locations than with isolated individual mailboxes.
Eliminates Curbside Clutter
Many neighborhoods prefer the aesthetic of a single mailbox clutter to having freestanding mailboxes at the end of every driveway. Many people think it’s a less cluttered look for the neighborhood – especially when the traditional mailboxes don’t have to conform to a uniform style.
Better for the Environment
Centralized mail delivery is better for the environment. That’s because postal vehicles don’t have to stop as often with centralized delivery, which means less fuel used and reduced carbon emissions.
Encourages Social Interaction with Neighbors
Finally, by clustering a dozen or so mailboxes in a single location, neighbors get more social interaction with each other than if they had individual mailboxes on their own properties. Neighbors actually see each other face-to-face and talk to each other when they’re gathering their mail, which is better for both individual interactions and the general community.
Common Centralized Delivery Challenges – and Solutions
Centralized delivery systems present a unique set of challenges for both residents and commercial delivery drivers. Here are ten of the most common challenges, along with appropriate solutions.
Who Pays for Cluster Box Units?
The cost of the centralized CBU is usually paid by the local homeowner’s association (HOA). The HOA typically passes on this cost to the individual homeowners as part of the annual HOA fees. In some instances, the postal service may pay for and install the mailbox cluster, but this is becoming less common.
Who Owns the Mailbox?
If the postal service installed the CBU, which is less common, it owns the mailboxes. In most instances, however, the mailboxes are privately owned by the homeowner’s association.
Who is Responsible for Maintaining Cluster Mailboxes?
What happens if a centralized mailbox gets damaged or needs a little upkeep?
According to USPS regulations, the property owners, community developers, or HOA is responsible for maintaining, repairing, and replacing cluster mailboxes. As with freestanding mailboxes, each resident is responsible for his or her own mailbox. Maintenance of the mailbox cluster collectively is typically the responsibility of the community developer or HOA. If the developer is out of the picture or there is no HOA, neighbors will need to chip to share any repairs.
Individual homeowners are typically responsible for clearing snow or ice from in front of the mailbox cluster. In some situations, the HOA will do the job, but individual homeowners have to step up and do the job more often than not.
How Does One Replace a Mailbox Lock?
All new mailbox clusters come with locks and keys for each mailbox, along with a USPS-approved master key that the postal carriers use. If a resident loses their mailbox key, they will probably need to install a new lock. The USPS will not replace mailbox locks and won’t fix damaged or defective mailboxes.
Is a Centralized Mailbox Really Secure?
Some people claim that a centralized mailbox cluster is more secure than individual mailboxes since each mailbox has its own lock while most individual mailboxes do not. That said, any thief with a crowbar will find CBUs fairly easy to break into, and multiple mailboxes can be ransacked in a short period of time. In fact, mail theft continues to be an issue for neighborhoods that use cluster mailboxes. The USPS reports that mail theft, in general, is up 600% over the past three years, but it’s unknown how much of this increase is due to the increasing use of centralized mailboxes.
What About Older or Disabled Citizens?
Centralized mailboxes are less convenient than having a mailbox on a front porch or directly in front of a home. While USPS rules state that cluster boxes should be located no more than one block from any given home, walking even that distance can be difficult for older citizens or people with certain disabilities. These individuals may want to arrange with a more able-bodied neighbor to retrieve their mail for them.
Who Decides Where Cluster Mailboxes Are Placed?
The U.S. Postal Service regulates the placement of mailbox clusters. All CBUs need to be placed no more than a block away from residences served and provide adequate space for carriers to deliver and customers to retrieve the mail.
How Do You Send Outgoing Mail?
Many mailbox clusters include a slot or compartment where all neighbors can place outgoing mail they need to be picked up. If a CBU doesn’t have an outgoing mail slot, residents will need to take their outgoing mail to a public USPS mailbox or the nearest Post Office branch.
What About Large Packages?
The individual mail compartments in a mailbox cluster are only large enough for envelopes and (sometimes) small packages. If a resident receives a larger box or package that won’t fit in the individual mail compartment, where does the postal carrier place the item?
Most CBUs features a special package compartment specifically for larger packages. This compartment is locked separately from the individual mailboxes. If an individual receives a larger package, the postal carrier places it in the package compartment and leaves the key for that compartment in the individual’s normal mailbox.
If there is no larger package compartment in a CBU, or if the package to be delivered is too large to fit within a packaging department, the postal carrier will leave a written notice in the recipient’s mailbox notifying them of the package delivery and instructing them how to pick up the package from the local post office. In some instances, the postal carrier will attempt to deliver the package directly to the recipient’s door, although this isn’t a universal practice.
What About Commercial Deliveries?
People don’t get all their deliveries from the postal service. Many packages are delivered via UPS, FedEx, or Amazon’s delivery service. Local merchants deliver all sorts of goods – flowers, pizza, appliances – via their own vehicle fleets. How are these deliveries affected by a centralized delivery system?
The answer is not at all. Private enterprises are not permitted to place their deliveries in USPS mailboxes, so anything being that isn’t postal mail should be delivered directly to the recipient’s residence door. It doesn’t matter whether the recipient has a centralized or freestanding mailbox; all non-postal deliveries go directly to the recipient’s front door.
Is Centralized Delivery a Good Thing?
The USPS certainly thinks that centralized delivery is a good thing. The postal service requires all new developments to use a centralized delivery system so that the days of traditional curbside mailboxes may be a thing of the past. The USPS sees centralized mail delivery as an essential way to cut costs and keep the mail flowing.
Postal service customers see centralized delivery as a mixed bag. There are benefits to consumers but also several drawbacks. For people living in older neighborhoods, it’s nothing to worry about at the moment. However, for families moving into new construction, cluster mailboxes will soon be a part of everyday life, like it or not.