Seaport Activity

What quantity of goods are entering or exiting the Bay Area by sea?

Seaport Activity

Seaport activity refers to the quantity of goods moved into or out of the region through seaports. Seaport activity is measured at major ports by the number of shipping containers moved; these are known as twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).

Seaports play a crucial role in today’s globalized economy, serving as entry and exit points for billions of dollars’ worth of goods. While their primary role is to facilitate the movement of freight from producers to consumers, wherever those consumers may reside, the ports themselves are significant economic engines for the regions in which they are located. Ports compete against each other for shippers’ business, and an individual port’s success depends not only on the overall level of global trade but also on its unique competitive advantages, such as location or operational efficiency.

Regional Performance
Cargo activity at the Port of Oakland is at an all-time high.

Nearly 2.4 million shipping containers moved through the Port of Oakland in 2014, a level last reached in 2006 and 2007 prior to the most recent recession. The 2014 figure marks a 15 percent jump from the port’s container volume at the nadir of the recession in 2009 and an increase of more than 100 percent over 1990 volumes. Yet at the same time, Oakland’s growth over the past few years has been rather slow, particularly in an era of rapid growth at ports in the Southeastern United States.

Historical Trend for Airport Activity — Port of Oakland

National Context
The Port of Oakland is one of the nation’s largest ports, although it moves significantly less cargo than either Los Angeles/Long Beach and New York/New Jersey.

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach stand head and shoulders above all competitors when measured by the number of containers moving through the ports. These adjacent ports serve as the nation’s primary seaport, benefiting from proximity to major domestic West Coast markets and shorter shipping routes to Asia. On the East Coast, the Port of New York and New Jersey serves as the largest seaport – benefiting from the same advantages as our peers in Southern California. Our region’s primary port, while ranked fifth for quantity of goods moved, is smaller than the nation’s “megaports” and moves just one-sixth the goods of Los Angeles and Long Beach combined.

Like most other U.S. ports, the Port of Oakland recorded a significant dip in freight movement between 2008 and 2010 as a result of reduced economic activity during the depths of the Great Recession. However, post-recession gains have been stronger at several competing ports, including the Port of Savannah. Notably, Savannah surpassed the Port of Oakland for the number four spot on the list of the nation’s ten largest container ports in 2006.

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Metro Comparison for Sea Port Activity


Port of Oakland: Container Statistics (1990-2015)

American Association of Port Authorities: Western Hemisphere Port TEU Container Volumes (1990-2015)

Image: Flickr (Creative Commons license), Photographer: John Marx

Methodology Notes: 

Container volumes include both empty and full containers that move through a given port; they include imports, exports, and domestic freight flows.