Five decades ago, the containership revolution started in the United States, changing how the United States and the world handle international freight transportation. In 2006, world maritime container traffic was estimated at 417 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) (loaded and empty) — 10 percent more than the 378 million TEUs transported in 2005.1 Today, one container in every nine carrying global trade is bound for or is coming from the United States, comprising 11 percent of worldwide container traffic.

The year 1956 saw the United States pioneer the world’s first use of containers for intermodal sea-land movements. Prior to this innovative transfer of containerized cargo between Newark, New Jersey, and Houston, Texas, finding a way to seamlessly move cargo from sea to land and land to sea was the greatest challenge for intermodal freight transportation. A “containership revolution” was born when it was publicly demonstrated that standard metal containers could successfully move goods on land-sea intermodal journeys.

Since that first journey over fifty years ago, containers have greatly changed the movement of U.S.-international freight, port operations, and the distribution of port’s share of total oceanborne trade. They have also impacted rail and trucking operations to and from seaports, affecting traffic on the landside of these ports.

Globally, one maritime container in every nine is bound for or comes from the United States.

From 1995 to 2006, world container traffic more than tripled in volume from 137 million to 417 million TEUs, growing at an average annual rate of about 11 percent (table 1). Expanding U.S. and global economic activity fueled this phenomenal growth in maritime container freight. With the exception of a few products, such as cars transported in specialized vessels, huge container vessels carry manufactured products of nearly every description.

Although the United States remained the leading trading nation, accounting for 12 percent of total world merchandise trade in 20052, the United States ranked second in container traffic, a position it has held since relinquishing the number one position to China in 1998. The United States’ position in container traffic directly relates to its position as the world’s largest trading partner with the world’s biggest economy. U.S. total imports ranked first with over 16 percent of global imports in 2005, while U.S. total exports accounted for 8.7 percent of global exports, following Germany, which was the leading exporter. The United States also remained the world’s largest economy, accounting for 28 percent of world gross domestic product (GDP) in 2005, up from 25 percent in 1995 (table 1).

1 Based on data from Clarkson Research Services Ltd., Container Intelligence Monthly, Vol. 8, No. 10, London, UK.

2 Based on data from World Trade Organization, 2006 Trade Report.