July 4, 2007

The iconic image of uniformed letter carriers perching on yellow bikes and pedaling the post is cherished by St. Petersburg, Fla., residents and tourists.

They continue the cycling tradition that started at the Open Air Station in 1917. As the oil prices soar to all time high, the postal cyclists make the local post office stay green, healthy and conserve gasoline.

Many changes have taken place at the Open Air Station, at 76 Fourth St. N, where the team of cycling postal workers is stationed. The historic building doesn’t shun all modern inventions. It closed its outdoor vending windows when air-conditioning was added.

But the bikes remain almost a century later. The mail carriers continue to cycle in modern times as a way of battling the shortage of downtown parking and navigating the Old Northeast neighborhood’s narrow alleyways and one-way streets.

St. Petersburg is one of the last cities in the country that still delivers mail on bikes. Another is Sun City in Arizona. But the 90-year tradition may disappear as post offices nationwide outsource jobs to the lowest bidders, according to O.D. Elliot, president of the local branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers. Concerned workers joined an informational picket on June 27 to protest the possibility that deliveries to new downtown condominiums will be subcontracted.

However, Robert “John” Phelps, manager of the Open Air Station, said the city expects to gain more than 3,000 new delivery points in the next five years, but it is unsure how the new policy will affect cycling deliveries.

The postal cyclists, a team of 25 men and women, pedal along 21 routes, between 14th Avenue North and 17th Avenue South, the Pier and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

The mail carriers work an eight-hour shift that starts at 7 a.m. Their daily routines begin with mail sorting, which can take 90 minutes to three hours. Each carrier has to thumb through at least 18 letters per minute, and put them into neat teal green slots in their booths. Four white mail trucks then shuttle the bulk of the sorted loads (and big parcels that came in later) to relay stations, big green mail boxes that dot the streets, for the letter carriers to pick up later.

The bicycle delivery carriers employ a mix of walking and driving. It’s called “park and loop,” said Yvonne Yoerger, press officer of the United States Postal Service.

Bicycle deliveries started in the late 1800s nationwide and were later phased out by vehicles, she said. Cycling deliveries were revived briefly in parts of the country during the 1970s oil crisis, to save on fuel costs.

The mail cyclists in downtown St. Petersburg are a tight-knit community with a strong sense of camaraderie. They share some routes and help each other when needed.

Back in the day

John Zack, 61, recalled a mishap that happened 21 years ago, his first year on a bike. The wheels of his and his colleague’s bicycles fell apart and toppled down the street. He called in a mail truck to bring two new bikes and collect the disassembled parts. The pair continued with their deliveries.

The postal carriers are mostly middle-aged. They don’t all look like athletes, but their tanned and nimble limbs have braved blazing sun and torrential rain. Many young bikers applied for the jobs but quit after a few days. There’s not much speed involved.

“You don’t get the zipping sound with a heavy load,” said Norman White, 63, one of the most senior bicyclists. “You actually spend a lot of time getting on and off the bike.”

Still, the jobs are desirable. Cycling is a great way to interact with people and make one more independent, White said. Letter carriers earn an hourly wage between $19 to $25, plus benefits. Working outdoors is appealing to cubicle-loathers.
Some of the cycling carriers are military reservists, since they can return to the same jobs after deployment.

Interested mail carriers can bid on open positions and delivery routes. Supervisors give priority to those with the most seniority, said Brian A. Wagner, acting manager of the Open Air Station. Applicants have to take exams that test their memories and general knowledge. And, they have to be able to lift 70-pound loads and carry 35 pounds of mail in their satchels.

The workers cycle for an average of 8 miles per day. The downtown business routes are the most coveted, since delivering mail to air-conditioned high rises and condos along the waterfront is less physically demanding.

Technology has changed a lot when it comes to delivering the mail, Zack said. Twenty years ago his post office used to receive mail scribbled with incomplete addresses such as “Grandma and Grandpa on 12th Avenue.” “We would shout across the mailroom and one of us could figure it out from the sender’s address,” he recalled. Then the letter would be delivered. “You don’t get that anymore with automation.”

Now, barcode readers scan the letters before human eyes, and all the undelivered letters go into the “moo mail” box, Zack said.

To connect with the public, Zack does it from his bike out on the streets. He greets people on their birthdays, and surprises children with their Christmas gifts.

“There’s up and downs in the job. When you can put a smile on somebody’s face, it’s all worth it,” he said.

The bike mechanic

The letter carriers ride their signature steel yellows, produced by Worksman Cycles in Ozone Park, New York City, which has made similar bikes since since 1898. The industrial bicycle has only one gear, and comes with thick tires, broad rims and a modified big brake for extra support. The embossed leather satchel carried by the early postman is now replaced by an aluminum box or yellow canvas basket strapped on front of the bike.

For the past 15 years, Jim Watts from the Bike Room, 2317 Central Ave., has kept them running smoothly on St. Petersburg streets. The mechanic is on call for broken chains and flat tires.

Over the years, plans to upgrade the fleet fell through. In 2002, Segway tested its personal scooters in Tampa. But the futuristic people mover was rejected because it cannot carry much mail and the battery life is too short.

The current bikes have been used for 15 years. One of them is White’s “dirty yellow” – a two-wheeler with rust spots on the handle bars and a well-worn canvas basket that he protects with a garbage bag on rainy days. Still, White cannot imagine the city can function without the bike.

“I’ll probably die before it,” he said.

The new guy

Chris Hubble applied for a transfer from Tampa to the Open Air Station 11 years ago.

On a typical day, Hubble, 39, inspects his bike before work and stuffs mail slips in the front pocket of his pale blue shirt. He accessorizes his bicycle with rubber bands, and puts a dog spray and a scanner in the mail pouches. Covering the business route, he roams from stores to office towers. He opens all the city’s mailboxes with the same set of magic keys that dangle from his back pocket.

This month he is training Richard Russo, 35, a new letter carrier. A former desk guy, Russo used to spend his days monitoring displaced mail on a computer screen. The new hire said pedaling on the streets is better than a desk-rendered job.

“I don’t have a boss who looked over my shoulder anymore,” he said.

He followed Hubble throughout his entire route, learning to open the mailboxes, make nice with office secretaries and hop the slate curbs with his bike. Russo listened while Hubble talked about the downsides of the bike route.

“My worst nightmare was torrential rain pour with 20 mile per hour side wind,” Hubble said. Many people along the route know him on a first-name basis.

On his first day of training with Hubble, Russo sweated profusely under the Floridian sun. He remembered to add a big water jug and a face towel in his basket the next day.

“It’s good. I love it,” Russo said, grinning.

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I-Ching Ng is an award-winning, bilingual Chinese-English journalist and translator. Formerly a staff reporter of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, Ng currently covers Sino-U.S.…
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