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Data Review America's Freight Transportation Gateways

Data Review

America's Freight Transportation Gateways


The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) new report, America's Freight Transportation Gateways, and the accompanying Gateways Resource CD include detailed data on the movement of freight into and out of the United States. Over 400 seaports, airports, and land border crossings currently move international freight in the United States. This new report profiles the top 25 gateways, including the nation's largest gateway by value, the Port of Los Angeles.

Folded into the back cover of the report is the Gateways Resource CD, which provides detailed data on over 200 gateways. The CD also contains extensive information on countries of origin and destination for goods passing through U.S. gateways and the firms moving goods across international borders.

The major sources of data for the Gateways report are:

  • Transborder Surface Freight Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics,
  • air cargo data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics,
  • U.S. Merchandise Trade Data from the U.S. Census Bureau,
  • border-crossing data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection,
  • water data on seaports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and
  • port calls and capacity data from the Maritime Administration


U.S. international trade increased at an average rate of 6% per year between 1990 and 2003, increasing from $899 billion to about $2 trillion. Water transportation carried the most trade, in terms of both tonnage and value. In 2003, vessels carried 78% of the total weight of trade and 41% of the total value (figure 1). Truck, train, and other land modes (e.g., pipelines) carried 22% of the total weight and 28% of the value. Although air transportation accounted for less than 1% of the total weight of trade, its transport of high-value goods made it responsible for 26% of the value.

The majority of trade is concentrated in a handful of gateways. The top 5 gateways handled more than one-quarter of the nation's trade by value, while the top 15 handled more than 50% and the top 50 handled 80% (table 1).

The top three gateways, by value, represent the three transportation modes (i.e., water, air, and land). The Port of Los Angeles was the leading gateway, with $122 billion in international shipments in 2003. This port grew tremendously from 1999 to 2003, reflecting increased trade with Asia and the Pacific Rim. During this period, imports increased 52% and exports increased 20%. Other gateways experienced an average import/export growth rate of 14%.

Import trade heavily outweighs export trade through the Port of Los Angeles. In 2003, import goods comprised 86% of the value of freight moving through this port. The national average for imports is approximately 66%.

The second largest gateway by value, John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport in New York, handled $112 billion in international trade. The top three origins of goods delivered through JFK are London, Brussels, and Frankfurt. However, further review of the data shows that most merchandise originates in Asia, and Europe is the last link in that supply chain. The top two carriers operating out of JFK, American Airlines and Lufthansa, together transported 21% of the imports and 17% of the exports passing through this gateway.

Detroit, the third largest gateway in the United States and the largest land gateway, moved $102 billion in trade. Of the top 25 gateways, Detroit is one of only three that handled more exports than imports. Trucks carried the majority of merchandise traveling by land through Detroit—83% by value.

The gateway ranking would change if listed by tonnage. Tonnage data are incomplete, however, because for land exports these data are not available in official records. For example, among seaports, the Port of Los Angeles, which ranks first by value, ranks ninth insofar as waterborne tonnage is concerned. The need for more complete tonnage data is one of the findings of this report.


America's Freight Transportation Gateways profiles the busiest gateways in America. Researchers interested in performing analysis for other gateways may use the detailed data available on the CD, included at the back of the report. The CD contains 11 Microsoft Access files.

Smaller Gateways

All of the data breakouts presented in the Gateways report can also be performed for smaller gateways not included in the report. Some of the relevant databases on the CD include: Export Air Cargo, Freight Border Crossing and Entry Data, Import Air Cargo, Maritime Tons by Foreign Ports, Maritime Value by U.S. Ports, TEUs by U.S. Ports, Transborder Surface Freight, U.S. Freight Gateways by Value, and U.S. Seaports by Calls-Capacity.

The CD includes data on trade levels at border crossings, ports, and airports. For example, using the Maritime Tons by Foreign Ports database, the trade volume between specific U.S. ports and European cities can be determined. Depending on the data needed, either the port names or the port numbers can be used, as designated by the U.S. Census Bureau. The database can also provide an historical overview of how port traffic changed from 1993 through 2003. Other uses include: comparing the weight of trade moving through ports, airports, and land borders using short tons; and comparing the value of imports for each mode.

Trading Partners

Researchers interested in analyzing trade between the United States and partner countries can turn to a number of relevant databases on the CD: International Freight by Country and Mode, Maritime Tons by Foreign Ports, Import Air Cargo, and Export Air Cargo.

The International Freight by Country and Mode database contains data on 232 countries, from 1997 through 2003. This database can be used to compute the total value of imports or exports by mode and the total weight of imported and exported goods by vessel and air.

In 2003, the five countries with the greatest value of imports to the United States (by all modes) were Canada, China (mainland), Mexico, Japan, and Germany. The same five countries supplied the greatest value of imports to the United States in 1997; however, at that time, Japan's trade level was greater than both China and Mexico.

The top five countries for exports by value in 2003 were Canada, Mexico, Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany. Mainland China was the sixth largest recipient of U.S. goods by value. In 1997, Germany was not in the top five and Korea was.

Analysis of the cargo weight (in short tons) by carrier, origin airport, and destination airport can be computed using the Export Air Cargo dataset. For example, the weight of trade (in short tons) between Auckland International Airport in New Zealand and all airports in the United States grew 12% from 1999 to 2003. Trade from Auckland to Los Angeles International Airport increased 10%.

Import air cargo is similar to export air cargo, where the country of destination is the United States. Analysis of the cargo weight (in short tons) by carrier, origin airport, and destination airport can be computed using the Import Air Cargo dataset.

Industry Profiles

The Import Air Cargo and Export Air Cargo databases provide information on trade volume by air. The database provides air carrier codes and names. Use of common air carrier and airport codes allows the user to link the Gateways database with other BTS air data products. These datasets can be particularly useful for providing information on where air carrier firms operate and the level of business conducted by each firm.

Vessel Types

U.S. Seaports by Calls-Capacity includes the number of port calls and capacity for 10 vessel types and 133 ports. Not all ports received all types of vessels. For example, Albany, New York, only received calls from dry bulk vessels and tankers. In contrast, Boston received at least one call from each type of vessel. The largest percentage of port calls in Boston were by tankers and product tankers, and the smallest number of port calls were by crude tankers, general cargo vessels, and combination vessels. The largest number of ports, 97, received dry bulk vessels; the smallest number of ports, 33, received vehicle-carrying vessels.


BTS provides this report, with the CD included, free of charge, from:

Customer Service
Bureau of Transportation Statistics
Research and Innovative Technology Administration
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 Seventh St SW, Room 4117
Washington, DC 20590
Email: orders@bts.gov
Online: www.bts.dot.gov, click on Products, then type the name of the report in the Search Products box.
Questions about this report: send an email to answers@bts.gov or call 800-853-1351.

Updated: Saturday, May 20, 2017