Uncomfortable Questions About Our Ports

Sometimes people ask questions to which they really don’t want the answers–especially when the answers might be inconvenient. A new government report that purports to look at how U.S. container ports are performing is a good example.

Container shipping, as I document in my book The Box, was an American invention. Newark and Houston were the first ports anywhere in the world to have terminals designed specifically to handle containers, and container terminals were developed in ports such as Oakland and Baltimore years before containerships reached Europe and Asia. But U.S. ports have long been laggards when it comes to efficiency. The world’s most productive ports, by most measures, are all in Asia.  No U.S. container port comes close.

In 2015, Congress directed the Department of Transportation to prepare an annual report on port capacity and throughput and to “collect port performance measures.” Unfortunately, the department’s first annual report on port performance, released in mid-January, carefully avoids saying anything about container ports’ performance. It charts the number of acres covered by each port’s container terminals, the number of cranes, the number of linear feet of berth, and the number of containers passing through. But nothing in the report allows a reader to judge whether, say, the Port of New York and New Jersey is as efficient as the Port of Savannah. The average number of container moves per hour for each vessel call; the number of containers handled per acre of terminal area; the average time an incoming container spends in the storage yard before being removed for delivery; the number of dock workers per million containers; the number of containers actually handled as a percentage of theoretical capacity: all of these statistics would shed light on ports’ performance. None of them appears in the report.

Why might that be? Let me hazard a guess. True performance measures might reveal that many U.S. container ports have built far more capacity than they need, that poor management and union rules cause some ports to take far longer to handle a large ship than other ports, and that some ports use workers and storage space much less efficiently than others. They might also show that most U.S. container terminals make far less use of automation than the best-run terminals in other countries. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who might not want such measures of port performance to be highlighted. If they were, the public might start asking uncomfortable questions

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2 thoughts on “Uncomfortable Questions About Our Ports”

  1. Greetings from panama, can you explain me container cycle – and empty- since the ship arrive, and the diferences with now : what changes do the corona crisis. thanks

    1. Before COVID, the normal routine was that import containers arrived in port, were transported by land to their final destination, and were emptied. After that, some were available for exporters, but many were exported empty: in 2019, the last year before the pandemic, 61% of the containers exported from Los Angeles had no cargo inside. Policies to counteract the economic impact of the COVID crisis led to a surge in goods trade, which has meant that many containers have been stuck aboard ships, in ports, or at distribution centers for longer periods. As a result, each container is able to make fewer voyages in the course of a year. Some people have described this as a “container shortage,” but this is not a good description. Goods trade is now growing more slowly and may decline if the world slides into recession. As this occurs, shipping delays will go away and there will be no shortage of containers.

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