Container Shipping History in Charts

Container ships at the Port of Oakland
Container ships at the Port of Oakland

Updated below

After my review of The Box and my port mapping exercise, I thought I’d sail back into port and unload a few port-related charts.

The first shows the growth of three big West Coast ports: Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland. As international trade has expanded and the container shipping industry has become more efficient, the number of containers moving through the ports has increased dramatically for the Southern California ports and increased modestly for Oakland. To measure throughput, the container shipping industry often uses the “TEU,” which stands for “twenty-foot equivalent unit.” Since containers are multiple sizes, they are all scaled to 20-foot length when it’s time to count:  a 30-foot long container is 1.5 TEU, a 15-foot is 0.75 TEU, and so on.

Between 2004 and 2014, the Port of LA increased its TEU count by 3.3 times [1]; the Port of Long Beach raised its throughput by 2.2 times [2]; and Oakland increased its TEU count by 1.6 times [3]. The 2008 Great Recession and subsequent (partial) recovery are clearly visible in the data.

Chart of port throughput data for Los Angeles, Long Beach Oakland - data from each port
Sources:  Port of L.A. from [1], Port of L.B. from [2], Port of Oakland from [3]

It took major infrastructure investments to make this growth possible — new terminals, bigger cranes, harbor dredging, railroad upgrades, investments in trucks, to name a few — so it would be interesting to chart the capital expenditures at the ports, both private and public. Do they track TEU growth?  Is the rapid increase at Long Beach between 2003 and 2006 the result of one or more new terminals opening?  I didn’t feel like digging for that information this month, but maybe some other time (The public expenditures should be available, though possibly scattered among different sources, e.g., state, county, city, ports.  Or perhaps there is a report out there that nicely summarizes it all.).

Worldwide, the growth in container shipping has also been dramatic, as the next chart indicates [4]. Between 1980 and 2013 the mass of material shipped in containers increased by almost 16-fold. Again, the 2008 recession is apparent.

Chart of container freight data from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
Source:  United Nations Conference on Trade and Development [4]

As worldwide container trade has grown, so have container ships.  The next figure shows the average and maximum size ship for 1980-2004 (average) or 1980-2013 (maximum) [5]. The average is slowly creeping up (the lifetime of a container ship is a few decades). The size of the biggest ship is growing faster.  This makes sense since that is a measure of a single ship, something that could have been a vanity project (much like the eternal quest for the tallest building). Eventually, the size of the biggest ship will stop growing for a few reasons: if too deep, fewer ports are available; if too wide, cranes can’t reach the containers; if it holds too many containers, the loading/unloading time could be problematic (shippers want to keep their ships at sea as much as possible, not tied up at the dock).


Chart of average and largest container ship size
Data from references in note [5]

I suspect that port-side equipment improvements and ship size have tracked closely since it’s not economically effective to have ships that are too large for the shore-size equipment, that can’t get into the port, or that take too long to unload. There is quite a bit of time between placing an order for a new ship and taking delivery, so the shippers and ports have probably been working together so that port equipment is ready when large ships make their first calls.

A long piece from City Lab had this nice summary of the big ship situation:

By the late 1980s, 4,500 TEUs were being transported on Panamax class ships that were able to fit—just barely—through the Panama Canal. Post-Panamax ships, too big for the canal, soon began plying other routes, and by the 2000s were carrying 8,000-plus TEUs. Today, the Triple E class container ships built for Maersk Line are the world’s largest ships, first brought into service by the shipping giant in 2013. The Triple E class can hold 18,000 TEUs. That’s enough to transport 111 million pairs of sneakers, or enough to shoe over one-third of the United States in a single trip. The Triple E is 1,300 feet long (a quarter of a mile), 194 feet wide, and 240 feet high. It is a floating Empire State Building.

An expansion of the Panama Canal is underway and expected to be completed in mid-2016. After the wider canal opens, it will allow “New Panamax” ships of 12,000-13,000 TEUs to pass through.

Update, 12/3/15: Via SFist, news that the Port of Oakland is upgrading 4 of their 33 cranes to handle ships that carry as many as 14,000 TEUs. The project will cost $13.95 million, begin in April, and last 10-12 weeks.

Update, 1/18/16Quartz has a piece about the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin, a container ship that is 396 meters long and 54 meters wide with a capacity of 18,000 TEUs.  Recently it became the largest container ship to visit a California port. These first visits were more of a dress rehearsal for future visits by this and other huge ships — determining if upgraded equipment is ready, improving preparation protocols and so forth.  The article includes a chart showing that shipping capacity is growing faster than demand for shipping capacity.  Some great photos of the visit are on the Flickr pages of Atsushi Kumagai, the Port of Oakland, and photo101.

Switching gears away from charts, I’ll end with shout outs to three other port-related sites. First, the art of Mike Kimball, an artist who draws inspiration for some of his work from the ports.  He frequently shows work at the City Art Gallery in San Francisco and his personal webpage has a few collections of his port-related work, like this one.  Second, a huge collection container photos and info about each one is on the The Intermodal Container Web Page. They aren’t intended as fine art, but it’s possible to see artistic value in the photos.  Third, KCRW radio’s five-part Cargoland series looks at a variety of topics like automation and how workers get hired.

[1] Port of Los Angeles
[2] Port of Long Beach
[3] Port of Oakland
[4] Container freight data from Figure 1.2 in Review of Maritime Transport 2014, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. (PDF)
[5] Average and largest ship data for 1980-2004 from Slide 27 in presentation called “Global Economic Trends in the Shipping and Terminal Industries,” by Drewry Shipping Consultants Ltd and Aegir Port Property Consultants, presented at AAPA Joint Public Relations & Maritime Economic Development Seminar, Galveston, Texas, April 5, 2005 (PDF). Largest ship for 2013 from gCaptain.

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