Recently, we have witnessed an upswing in parcel delivery by bike, especially as UPS continues to expand their use of bike trailers to deliver packages around the holiday season. In many places, bicycle delivery services and mobile bike businesses are popping up that offer a wide variety of services (you can find information about a wide assortment of these sorts of businesses at Bike Portland – from tree planting by bike to bike hearses). However, I noticed that there seems to be a lack of news on bicycle mail delivery, so I decided it was time to find out more about this component of bicycle delivery that we identified when we first set out to define utility cycling. Header Photo Credit: Pashley.
Postal Service & the USPS
For the purposes of this post, mail delivery refers to postal service, which is the delivery of written documents and small packages. The exact role and function of a postal service varies by country, and a postal service can be private or public. In most countries, the role of postal services has evolved and changed significantly over time, but in many cases, the postal service is a government entity, while there are often parcel carriers that are privately owned, which may or may not compete with the postal service.
In the United States, the United States Postal Service (USPS) is the agency responsible for delivering standard mail. USPS is the second largest non-military employer – behind Wal-Mart – in the U.S., and it operates the largest civilian vehicle fleet in the world, with approximately 260,000 vehicles (but far fewer bicycles than I would like!). Despite the huge fleet of vehicles – or maybe because of them – USPS has a strong history of environmental stewardship. They participate in a number of environmental and sustainability programs, work to minimize the number of vehicle miles traveled throughout the fleet, and utilize alternative fuels. Although, I will argue they could significantly expand their relatively tiny use of bicycles!
Bicycle Mail Delivery History
I am going to focus mainly on bicycle mail delivery history in the U.S., but if anyone has links or resources about bicycle mail delivery history in other countries, please feel free to send them our way. For the most part, early bicycle mail delivery history mirrors bicycle history in general, so it is safe to say bicycle mail became an option for postal workers who delivered by foot or horseback in the late 1800’s as bicycle use became more common in many places.
The first instance of bicycle mail delivery in the U.S. is tied closely to the Pullman Strike of 1984, during which there was a major conflict between railroad workers and labor unions that resulted in a nearly half of the traffic being shut down throughout the country. One of the major implications of the strike was the suspension of mail service between many cities. According to Stampnotes and Messengers.org, in Fresno, California, which was able to receive mail but not send it back out to other cities in California such as San Francisco, a representative from Victor Bicycles suggested that a relay of bicycles between the cities be instituted to carry the mail. Special stamps were quickly created and a mail service created that transported mail and other small items by bike between Fresno and San Francisco.
Image Source: Messengers.org
The distance between Fresno and San Francisco is approximately 200 miles, and the mail was carried between the two cities in relays by different riders who had to cover anywhere between 15 to 60 miles. The cost of the service was $0.25, and some riders also carried other items that needed to be delivered. The last run was made by a single rider – as the other riders were need to help quell the striking railroad workers – and he did the ride in 2 days using a fixed gear with a rather tough gear ratio.
Image Source: Messengers.org
Stampnotes also mentions that Australia is also known for its history of bicycle mail delivery. The Coolgardie Cycle Express was created due to the discovery of gold, which resulted in a sudden and booming population in and around Coolgardie, Australia in the 1890’s. The Cycle Express was created to help carry messages and mail around the goldfields.
Image Source: Global Auction House
Bicycle mail services were also operated in South Africa, France, Switzerland, and Italy throughout the first half of the 1900’s, especially during World War I and II, but by the 1930’s most countries had replaced bicycle mail service with automobile mail service.
Modern Bicycle Mail Services
Today, bicycle mail services exist somewhat intermittently throughout many countries. In the United States, the USPS delivers mail by bike in only three places – Sun City, Arizona, St. Petersburg, Florida, and Miami Beach, Florida. According to USPS:
Sun City, AZ, carriers delivering by bicycle conserve 7,800 gallons of gasoline annually compared to Long Life Vehicle delivery and eliminate 25,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. All Sun City carriers with bike routes received new wheels in November of 2007. Sun City, AZ, Postmaster Mark Strong said, Now our red, white and blue fleet of bicycles is delivering green.
Bicycle mail carriers in the U.S. speak highly of the bicycle mail program, despite the fact that they have to occasionally deliver mail in the rain and elements.
“Just riding, with the wind blowing, it’s nice,” said Jackie Genes, 44, who has worked out of the Open Air Station for 14 years. – St. Petersburg Times
Bicycle mail is relatively commonplace in countries like New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Denmark, France, among others. In New Zealand, the Postie is a common sight delivering mail in their bright yellow and red shirts, and nearly 80% of NZ Posties use bicycles for their primary delivery mode.
Image Source: Examiner.com
In the United Kingdom, the Royal Mail Service has been a common site throughout many cities, delivering mail on Pashley Mailstar bikes. Unfortunately, the Royal Mail Service – in what has been called a time-saving effort – has plans to phase out nearly 25,000 postal bikes in favor of trolleys and other vehicles. However, as Treehugger points out, that means that there will be nearly 25,000 Pashley Mailstars hitting the UK marketplace.
For the most part, it appears that bicycle mail service is rather uncommon in many places. Fortunately, this means there is a great potential to increase the use of bicycles for delivering mail in many places, which saves money, reduces traffic congestion, increases postal worker health, builds a sense of community, and is generally good for the planet.