The U.S. marine transportation system handles large volumes of domestic and international freight in support of the Nation's economic activities. As a vital part of that system, the Nation's container ports handle cargo and are sources of employment, revenue, and taxes for businesses or communities where they are located.

This report provides an overview of the movement of maritime freight handled by the Nation's container ports in 2009 through mid-2010, based on the most current available data through that time period. It summarizes trends in maritime freight movement since 1995, especially during the last 5 years. It also covers the impact of the recent U.S. and global economic downturn on container traffic; trends in container throughput; concentration of containerized cargo at the top U.S. ports; regional shifts in cargo handled, vessel calls, and port capacity; the rankings of U.S. ports among the world's top ports; and the number of maritime container entries into the United States relative to truck and rail containers. The report also includes spotlight summaries of landside access to container ports and maritime security initiatives.

The principal findings of the report are discussed below:

Recent Trends

Cargo ship and cranes.
Peter Hellebrand
  • In the first half of 2010, U.S. container ports handled a total of 110 million metric tons of containerized cargo, 17 percent higher than the 95 million metric tons handled in the same period in 2009, but down 8 percent from the 120 million metric tons handled in 2008.
  • Both U.S. containerized exports and imports rose during the first half of 2010, as U.S. businesses replenished low inventories and production activities increased. Despite this upturn, maritime container exports for the first half of 2010 were down 6 percent from 2008 levels and container imports were down 9 percent.
  • The growth in cargo activity at U.S. container ports during the beginning of 2010 followed a challenging year in 2009, when the tonnage of container cargo handled by the Nation's ports fell by 10 percent when compared to 2008.
  • The growth in container traffic in early 2010 affected various sectors of the freight transportation sector. During the first half of 2010, active containership capacity worldwide reached 13 million TEUs (20-foot equivalent units—a measure for counting containers), up 15 percent from the previous 6 months, as the number of idled vessels fell and new vessels were delivered for service.
  • The number of intermodal shipping containers and truck trailers transported nationwide on railcars by U.S. Class I railroads during January to June of 2010 was 5.2 million units, up 12 percent from 4.6 million moved by rail during the same period in 2009, but down 7 percent from 5.6 million in 2008.
  • In 2009, the most recent period for which global data are available, worldwide container TEUs declined 15 percent, compared to 2008.
  • Despite recent fluctuations, today 1 container in every 11 that is engaged in global trade is either bound for or originates in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of worldwide container traffic.
  • U.S. container ports handle more TEUs of imports than exports, although the percentage of exports has increased during the most recent 3 years. In 2009, maritime container imports passing through U.S. seaports accounted for 58 percent of total container traffic, down from its peak of 67 percent in 2006.
  • On a typical weekday in 2009, U.S. container ports handled an average of 68,000 TEUs of freight, up from 37,000 TEUs per day in 1995, but down from the peak of about 78,000 in 2007.
  • In 2009, the top 10 U.S. container ports accounted for 85 percent of U.S. containerized TEU imports and exports, up from 78 percent in 1995.

West coast ports as a region grew the fastest of any port region between the mid-1980s and 2009, but since 2007 the region has experienced the sharpest decline in container traffic. Between 2007 and 2009, total TEUs handled by west coast ports declined 22 percent, compared with 13 percent decline for east coast ports and less than 1 percent increase for gulf coast ports.

Vessel Calls at Ports

  • The majority of containership calls to the United States are made to a relative few ports. The top 10 U.S. container ports accounted for more than three quarters (77 percent) of containership calls.
  • U.S. maritime ports also handled larger container vessels than in the past. The average size (per call) of container vessels calling at U.S. ports in 2009 was 50,000 deadweight tons (dwt), a 14 percent increase from 2004, when the average was 44,000 dwt.
  • More of the vessels calling at U.S. ports are containerships. In 2009, containerships accounted for 33 percent of the total calls by all ships in U.S. ports, up from 31 percent in 2004.
  • In 2009, containerships averaged 3,800 TEUs per port call, up 19 percent from 3,200 TEUs 5 years earlier.
  • More of the larger container vessels are calling at U.S. ports. During the last 5 years, calls by post-Panamax containerships of 5,000 TEUs or greater rose by 156 percent (up from 1,700 calls in 2004 to 4,400 in 2009).1 In 2009, these containerships accounted for 24 percent of all containership calls at U.S. seaports, up from 10 percent in 2004.

The containerships calling at U.S. ports are relatively newer than other vessel types that call at the Nation's ports. In 2009, the average age of containerships calling at U.S. ports was approximately 10 years, compared with about 12 years of age for all other vessels.

Trading Partners

  • In 2009, only 2 U.S. ports—Los Angeles and Long Beach—ranked among the world's top 20 container ports as measured in TEUs, placing 16th and 18th respectively. In 2008, the Port of New York/New Jersey ranked 20th, but it fell to the 22nd position in 2009.
  • In 2009, container trade with the top 10 countries accounted for nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of imported container TEUs and over half (56 percent) of exported container TEUs. The top five U.S. containerized cargo trading partners in 2009 were all Asian countries. China was the leading containerized merchandise trading partner, accounting for nearly one-half (48 percent) of U.S. maritime imported TEUs, almost double from 25 percent in 2000.

On a typical weekday in 2009, an average of nearly 38,000 individual maritime containers (not TEUs) carrying imports entered the United States. This was down from about 43,000 in 2008, but up from 23,000 in 2000.

Major Commodities

  • Containers carry a wide variety of commodities—from sweaters, blouses, and flat-screen televisions to computer equipment and wood and paper products. During the first half of 2010, America's container ports handled over $256 billion worth of containerized cargo imports weighing more than 62 million metric tons. They also handled exports worth over $100 billion and weighing 48 million metric tons.
  • In 2009, U.S. ports handled $474 billion containerized imports, down 18 percent from 2008. By weight, imports also dropped 18 percent, from 137 million metric tons to 112 million metric tons. The top imported commodities by value in 2009 were print machinery, television and electronics, and motor vehicle parts and accessories. By weight, the leading imported commodities were furniture, bananas, and worked monumental or building stones.
  • U.S. container ports handled $177 billion worth of containerized exports in 2009, down 19 percent from $220 billion in 2008. By weight, exports dropped by 10 percent, from 98 million metric tons to 88 million metric tons. The leading exported commodities by value in 2009 were motor cars and vehicles, ethylene polymers, and machinery. By weight, the leading exported commodities were paper waste and scrap, iron and steel waste and scrap, and chemical wood pulp.

1 Post-Panamax vessels are too large to pass through the Panama Canal. They can carry up to 6,500 TEUs and typically have widths exceeding 32.2 meters (105.6 feet). Recent designs of these vessels are able to carry more than 12,000 TEUs. The world's largest container vessel, the Emma Maersk, commissioned in 2006, is officially listed as an 11,000 TEU ship, but its cargo capacity is estimated to range from 13,000 to 15,000 TEUs (http://about.maersk.com/en/Fleet/Pages/Fleet.aspx).