Every day on my commute to work, I drive past downtown San Francisco, onto the Bay Bridge, and into the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. Along with the beauty of the San Francisco skyline, the glistening water, the contrast of the old and new Bay Bridge, a must see part of this drive is the shipping cranes of Oakland. I’ve become fascinated with the large cargo ships, the imposing cranes, the aluminum containers that neatly move from ship to truck, and the unexpected innovation and clockwork efficiency of the global and vast shipping and trucking transportation industry.
To get a closer look, I ventured to the Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, right smack in the middle of the Port of Oakland. The park has a viewing center to see an operating crane and you can see close up the stacked crates at the port. Here are some photos from my afternoon at the park
A few weeks later, I was fortunate to enjoy a day on the bay to watch the America’s Cup yachting race being held in the San Francisco Bay. Along with some shots of the race yachts and the Bay captured here, I also got some nice photos of cargo ships at the port.
It turns out Bill Gates is also fascinated with the shipping industry. Here he reviews the book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by former Economist editor Marc Levinson.
From Gates’ review, he describes the history of the container seen on today’s cargo ships.
For centuries, cargo ships were loaded and unloaded by hand, one crate at a time. Each crate might have a different destination, which made the whole process slow and expensive. In 1956, a trucking magnate named Malcolm McLean had a clever idea: Instead of unloading a trailer’s worth of crates onto a ship, why not put the whole trailer on the ship?
It was the beginning of a revolution in the way goods move around the world. Shipping lines ordered bigger and bigger ships to accommodate the aluminum boxes that soon became the standard container. Port cities from New York to Singapore raced to modernize their facilities to accommodate the larger ships.
By the early 1980s, the transition to the containerized system was essentially complete. Computers were coming into the picture as well. I remember meeting with the leaders of port authorities that wanted to go paperless. They would ask, Are the computer systems reliable? How do they work? Today it seems crazy that a ship would dock and somebody would get off with a piece of paper to show what’s in the cargo hold.
The move to containerized shipping had an amazing impact on the global economy. As Levinson says, “A machine manufactured on Monday can be dropped at Port Newark on Tuesday and delivered in Stuttgart, Germany, in less time than it once would have taken to be loaded aboard a ship.” He cites one study that says the container system reduced freight rates from Asia to North America by 40 to 60 percent. At the same time, it also led to job losses at ports, since greater efficiency meant you could move more freight with fewer dock workers.
Also, I recently heard on a radio interview, author Rose George describe her recent book, Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Plate. George spent a month on such a cargo ship and describes her experiences, the efficiency of the system, and the immense impact the shipping industry has on the global economy. You can listen to her interview and read the transcript here.
For Bay Area residents, a visit to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park in Oakland is highly recommended. And when near any port around the world, take a moment to let the majesty of the scene and realize the far reaching impact the industry has on our daily lives.