USA Banner

Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

U.S. Ports Work Through Daunting Challenges to Deliver the Goods

Monday, January 24, 2022

With a perfect storm of existing capacity limits, rapid demand increases, and the labor shortages from initial COVID-19 pandemic reductions, container ports are facing major challenges in moving cargo. As the chart below shows, since late 2020, U.S. container ports have been successfully bringing in goods at a much stronger pace than before the pandemic.

In our just-in-time shipping model, ports operate close to capacity.

Under normal conditions, our port facilities have capacity limits, determined in part by the size (acreage) of terminals, length of berths, depth of access channels, and the amount and type of cargo handling equipment (e.g., container cranes). Excess capacity means idle resources, and ports are less likely to invest in greater capacity before market indicators signal the need to expand. The chart below indicates relative container crane capacities of 25 top US ports.

Demand for goods bounced back and quickly exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

With COVID-19, demand for goods plummeted shortly after the pandemic’s onset in March 2020, then quickly surpassed pre-pandemic levels. As the chart below shows, demand growth during the pandemic was atypically swift, if not unprecedented, beginning in the latter half of 2020.

Where do we go from here?

Although the backlog of ships at anchor outside of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles has not disappeared, by the end of November 2021, it had started to approach a normal level. Following a brief spike in December, the backlog again began trending downward partially thanks to a new queuing system to manage the backlog. BTS will continue monitoring changes in port capacity, transportation employment, and consumer demand to gauge their effect on port activity.

Learn more about U.S. port capacity and throughput and vessel dwell times with our Port Performance Freight Statistics pages.