What's the World's Busiest Port?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 3/16/2007 04:33:00 AM
Marc Levinson's The Box provides a vivid illustration of how the prosaic shipping container revolutionized global trade. Prior to the standardization of the container, Levinson writes that "transporting goods was expensive--so expensive that it did not pay to ship things halfway across the country, much less halfway around the world." Afterwards, though, the volume of global trade increased markedly: "The value of this utilitarian object lies not in what it is, but in how it is used. The container is at the core of a highly automated system for moving goods from anywhere, to anywhere, with a minimum of cost and complication along the way." In economist-speak, the standardization of the container did much to reduce transaction costs for schlepping goods around the world.

While trucks and trains are the primary modes of land-based transportation for containers, shipping remains the long-distance transportation mode of choice. As such, having highly active container ports gives countries economic bragging rights. The task of determining which is the world's busiest port is complicated because three measures of activity may be used:
  • Shipping Tonnage: How many cargo ships are handled at a port?
  • Cargo Tonnage: What is the total weight of goods that are loaded and discharged at a port?
  • Container Throughput: How many twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) go through a port? (For example, a forty-foot container would count as 2 TEUs.)

Unsurprisingly, most of the world's busiest ports are in Asia as the table above depicts, though it is somewhat dated. Hong Kong and Singapore have been duking it out for the title of world's top port for some time now. In the recent past, Singapore held the lead in cargo tonnage, while Hong Kong held the lead in container throughput. However, Singapore surpassed Hong Kong in terms of both measures in 2005 and 2006 according to their port authorities' statistics. Even so, Shanghai claims its port exceeded Singapore's in terms of cargo tonnage in 2005 (443M tons to 423M) and 2006 (a whopping 537M tons to 449M). Singapore still leads Shanghai in terms of container throughput, though, with 23.2M TEUs to 18.1M in 2005 and 24.8M TEUs to 21.7M in 2006.

Regardless of which port leads overall, there are some key implications here. China's export growth has benefited from the attention paid to developing a transportation infrastructure for exports. Three out of five of the world's busiest ports in terms of container throughput are in China. Getting goods from special economic zones (SEZs) unto cargo ships has received undoubted attention. Should India wish to follow in China's footsteps, it will have to make improvements to its decrepit infrastructure. Standardizing the shipping container enabled inexpensive shipping the world over; these massive container ports are proof of this ingenuity.

[UPDATE: I have taken a look at the 2007 figures in a more recent post.]