Monday, November 16, 2015

Container Shipping History in Charts

After my review of The Box and my port mapping exercise, I thought I'd sail back into port and unload a few port-related charts.

The first shows the growth of three big West Coast ports: Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland. As international trade has expanded and the container shipping industry has become more efficient, the number of containers moving through the ports has increased dramatically for the Southern California ports and increased modestly for Oakland. To measure throughput, the container shipping industry often uses the "TEU," which stands for "twenty-foot equivalent unit." Since containers are multiple sizes, they are all scaled to 20-foot length when it's time to count:  a 30-foot long container is 1.5 TEU, a 15-foot is 0.75 TEU, and so on.

Between 2004 and 2014, the Port of LA increased its TEU count by 3.3 times [1]; the Port of Long Beach raised its throughput by 2.2 times [2]; and Oakland increased its TEU count by 1.6 times [3]. The 2008 Great Recession and subsequent (partial) recovery are clearly visible in the data. 
Chart of port throughput data for Los Angeles, Long Beach Oakland - data from each port
Sources:  Port of L.A. from [1], Port of L.B. from [2], Port of Oakland from [3]

It took major infrastructure investments to make this growth possible — new terminals, bigger cranes, harbor dredging, railroad upgrades, investments in trucks, to name a few — so it would be interesting to chart the capital expenditures at the ports, both private and public. Do they track TEU growth?  Is the rapid increase at Long Beach between 2003 and 2006 the result of one or more new terminals opening?  I didn't feel like digging for that information this month, but maybe some other time (The public expenditures should be available, though possibly scattered among different sources, e.g., state, county, city, ports.  Or perhaps there is a report out there that nicely summarizes it all.).

Worldwide, the growth in container shipping has also been dramatic, as the next chart indicates [4]. Between 1980 and 2013 the mass of material shipped in containers increased by almost 16-fold. Again, the 2008 recession is apparent.

Chart of container freight data from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
Source:  United Nations Conference on Trade and Development [4]

As worldwide container trade has grown, so have container ships.  The next figure shows the average and maximum size ship for 1980-2004 (average) or 1980-2013 (maximum) [5]. The average is slowly creeping up (the lifetime of a container ship is a few decades). The size of the biggest ship is growing faster.  This makes sense since that is a measure of a single ship, something that could have been a vanity project (much like the eternal quest for the tallest building). Eventually, the size of the biggest ship will stop growing for a few reasons: if too deep, fewer ports are available; if too wide, cranes can't reach the containers; if it holds too many containers, the loading/unloading time could be problematic (shippers want to keep their ships at sea as much as possible, not tied up at the dock).

Chart of average and largest container ship size
Data from references in note [5]

I suspect that port-side equipment improvements and ship size have tracked closely since it's not economically effective to have ships that are too large for the shore-size equipment, that can't get into the port, or that take too long to unload. There is quite a bit of time between placing an order for a new ship and taking delivery, so the shippers and ports have probably been working together so that port equipment is ready when large ships make their first calls.

A long piece from City Lab had this nice summary of the big ship situation:

By the late 1980s, 4,500 TEUs were being transported on Panamax class ships that were able to fit—just barely—through the Panama Canal. Post-Panamax ships, too big for the canal, soon began plying other routes, and by the 2000s were carrying 8,000-plus TEUs. Today, the Triple E class container ships built for Maersk Line are the world's largest ships, first brought into service by the shipping giant in 2013. The Triple E class can hold 18,000 TEUs. That's enough to transport 111 million pairs of sneakers, or enough to shoe over one-third of the United States in a single trip. The Triple E is 1,300 feet long (a quarter of a mile), 194 feet wide, and 240 feet high. It is a floating Empire State Building.

An expansion of the Panama Canal is underway and expected to be completed in mid-2016. After the wider canal opens, it will allow "New Panamax" ships of 12,000-13,000 TEUs to pass through.

Switching gears away from charts, I'll end with shout outs to three other port-related sites. First, the art of Mike Kimball, an artist who draws inspiration for some of his work from the ports.  He frequently shows work at the City Art Gallery in San Francisco and his personal webpage has a few collections of his port-related work, like this one.  Second, a huge collection container photos and info about each one is on the The Intermodal Container Web Page. They aren't intended as fine art, but it's possible to see artistic value in the photos.  Third, KCRW radio's five-part Cargoland series looks at a variety of topics like automation and how workers get hired.

[1] Port of Los Angeles
[2] Port of Long Beach
[3] Port of Oakland
[4] Container freight data from Figure 1.2 in Review of Maritime Transport 2014, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. (PDF)
[5] Average and largest ship data for 1980-2004 from Slide 27 in presentation called "Global Economic Trends in the Shipping and Terminal Industries," by Drewry Shipping Consultants Ltd and Aegir Port Property Consultants, presented at AAPA Joint Public Relations & Maritime Economic Development Seminar, Galveston, Texas, April 5, 2005 (PDF). Largest ship for 2013 from gCaptain.

Random link from the archive: Eating in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Old Maps Show the Evolution of Wilshire Boulevard

Not finding a satisfactory history of the evolution of Wilshire Boulevard in Kevin Roderick's Wilshire Boulevard book, I started to look into map archives for some answers (my review is here).

The Los Angeles Past blog led me to the 1897 edition of Maxwell's Los Angeles City Directory at the California Digital Library (details about each map used in this post are at the bottom).  This map covers a radius of 3.5 to 5 miles around Los Angeles Plaza Park (Olvera Street, the historic center of Los Angeles). As Figure 1 below shows, Wilshire was just four blocks long at that time, with its eastern end at the edge of Westlake Park* (renamed MacArthur Park in 1942 after General Douglas MacArthur) and its western end at Hoover Street (where the N-S and SW-NE grids meet). It appears that the basic skeleton of today's Wilshire is in place, with its future 'conquests' of Sixth Street to the west and Orange Street to the east already in use as active streets. (Bizarrely, there is a discontinuity in Sixth Street where the two grids meet at an uncompleted section of Hoover Street. Why did this happen?  It seems like a major planning oversight.)

Detail of Maxwell's City Guide to Los Angeles, 1897
Figure 1: Area west of Westlake Park, from Maxwell’s city guide (1897). (Click to enlarge)

Figure 2 below is also from Maxwell's directory and shows the area between Westlake Park and downtown. Orange Street connects the center of the park with downtown, ending at Figueroa. Wilshire eventually took over this part of Orange plus an extension that required a combination of building demolition and building modification to create a continuous path to today's terminus at Grand Avenue (a piece from Southland explains how that extension happened with before, during and after photos). 

Detail of Maxwell's City Guide to Los Angeles, 1897
Figure 2: Area east of Westlake Park, from Maxwell’s city guide (1897). (Click to enlarge)

You can see the final eastern path of Wilshire in Figure 3, which is a detail of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) "Hollywood" map from 1953 (scale 1:24,000). Wilshire is the red diagonal line in the middle of the image that runs through MacArthur Park to downtown. The big Wilshire-related differences between the 1897 maps and this one are a clear path between the park and Grand Avenue and the park is bisected by the boulevard (a project completed in 1934).

Detail of 1953 USGS map of Los Angeles
Figure 3:  Area east of MacArthur Park, from USGS (1953). (Click to enlarge)

Figure 4 is a detail of a 1902 map produced by Henry Rueger (also obtained from the LA Public Library).  It covers the same territory as the Maxwell map (and probably used the Maxwell map as the starting point). Between 1897 and 1902, Wilshire took over Sixth Street west of Hoover, while Sixth Street took over Ward Street west of Hoover.  At last, both streets were properly aligned at the grid shift.

Detail of Henry Rueger map of Los Angeles, 1902
Figure 4: Area west of Westlake Park, from Henry Rueger map (1902). (Click to enlarge)
The western boundary for both the 1897 and 1902 maps is Arlington Street, so they don't show the far western edge of Sixth or Wilshire — like whether there was a connection to the old Rancho roads or just a dead-end or tee somewhere out in the western grasslands or oil fields. I found a partial answer while poking around the LA Public Library's map collection in the form of a USGS map from 1900 that covers a significant amount of the Los Angeles area (scale 1:62,500; E-W: Santa Monica to Monrovia, N-S: La Crescenta to Vernondale). In Figure 5, it looks like today's Wilshire doesn't pass over the 1900 roads (the solid lines; dotted lines are city boundaries, I think). If you go west from West Lake (green arrows), the road veers to the west-north-west (red arrow) onto a road that may or may not have a modern counterpart (perhaps it is part of 3rd Street?). Out to the west (blue arrows) the old road looks like the current boulevard:  the road goes E-W through Rodeo de las Aguas (now Beverly Hills), makes some wide curves, passes through the Soldiers Home (near the present-day VA complex and military cemetery), and lines up with Santa Monica's grid on the left of the figure.

Annotated detail of 1900 USGS map of Los Angeles area
Figure 5: Annotated area around Rodeo de las Aguas and Soldiers Home, from USGS (1900/1908). (Click to enlarge)

Figure 6 is a larger piece of the 1900 USGS map that shows vast open areas between downtown and Santa Monica.  There are many interesting things in the map, but here are two: 1) Were railroad lines were converted to roads? For example, was the right of way of the Pasadena and Pacific Railroad given over to Santa Monica Boulevard?  2) In relative terms, the city of Palms (absorbed into Los Angeles long ago) is quite large. Palms' grid of about 10 streets is the biggest street network between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica — Beverly Hills is non-existent, as is the Westside. So the next time I'm in Los Angeles and pass through the Palms area, I'll have a lot more respect for it, perhaps making a point of looking for 'historic' central Palms (and, if the stars align, eating a meal at Niki Nakyama's highly regarded n/naka).  The town of Palms seems to be a real estate speculation project from the 1880s with a name — and plenty of imported trees*** — to proclaim that residents can live "the good life" in the new city. 

Detail of 1900 USGS map of Los Angeles area
Figure 6: From Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, from USGS (1900/1908). (Click to enlarge)

Wilshire's Evolution
To sum up, here is a summary of Wilshire's historical growth, moving from downtown to the ocean:
  • Orange Street from Grand Avenue to the eastern edge of MacArthur Park
  • A roadway through MacArthur Park that was finished in 1934
  • The original Wilshire Blvd on the west side of MacArthur Park
  • Sixth Street for some unknown distance
  • A new roadway through today's Miracle Mile area
  • Historic Rancho roads through Beverly Hills and Westwood
  • Nevada Avenue in Santa Monica to the bluffs above the ocean

* This alignment would doom the park to bisection a few decades later — how typical of Los Angeles to put a major road through a park instead of instead continuing Sixth Street to the northern corner of the park to connect with the other Sixth Street. But that might have required harming some commercial interests. Note that Los Angeles is famous for having a relatively small amount of city parks on a per capita basis.  The city's growth was so developer-driven, fragmented, and unplanned that there was not the foresight to set up a huge park like New York's Central Park or San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. 
** Palm trees aren't native to Los Angeles and they needed to be imported.  99% Invisible has a podcast about the palm trees of Los Angeles.

Image Credits

Random link from the archive: No Knead Bread

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Book Review: “Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles” by Kevin Roderick

Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles, by Kevin Roderick (with research by J. Eric Lynxwiler) has been on my list for many years and I finally read it last month.

On my handful of visits to Los Angeles, I have probably driven the  entire length of Wilshire Boulevard, covering a lot of the same territory and adding new bits and pieces on each trip. One evening during my most recent trip, I started near the western terminus at Rustic Canyon (the kitchen is currently run by the brilliant Jeremy Fox, who was formerly at Ubuntu in Napa), then drove east to see Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass and Urban Light by Chris Burden outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)*. The next day, I happened to park underneath the building called One Wilshire (which actually has an address of 624 S Grand Avenue) before seeing the To Live and Dine in LA menu exhibit at the Central Library, enjoying some of the old buildings in downtown, and later having a great meal at BS Taqueria (beet torta!).

Urban Light
Wilshire Boulevard is one of Los Angeles's primary streets, starting among the towers of downtown Los Angeles, eventually going through part of Beverly Hills, returning to Los Angeles, and ending up at the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica. Wilshire wasn't carefully planned to be like this. No group of planners sat in a room and said "we'll put a major east-west street along this route from the city center to the ocean..." Instead, it grew as cities grew, absorbing whatever pre-existing road was convenient as it moved outward from its origin near Westlake Park (now called MacArthur Park). This growth pattern partly explains its highly irregular shape (another factor is the local topography, of course). The downtown street grid is tilted approximately 45 degrees from the N-S axis (to prevent the prevailing westerly winds from turning streets into wind tunnels). West of downtown it bends to be aligned with the N-S axis. This alignment continues through Beverly Hills. In Westwood and far west Los Angeles, the boulevard goes completely off-axis — probably to align with the topography and/or because it took over early roads from the Spanish and Mexican eras (see Curbed Los Angeles for more on LA's grid). Finally, at San Vicente Boulevard, Wilshire connects to Santa Monica's coast-aligned grid (originally Nevada Avenue), ending up in an orientation that is roughly 90 degrees rotated from the downtown orientation.  In other words, if you traveled the length of Wilshire from downtown to the ocean, your compass would initially read NW, switch to W at Hoover Street, vary between NW, W and SW around Westwood, and finally end up reading SW in Santa Monica. 

I Think I'll Make a New Street Today
The initial stretch of Wilshire Boulevard was the result of one man's decision. Gaylord Wilshire had a good bit of land and decided that he wanted to build a wide thoroughfare that could be a promenade with grand houses on each side — and, of course, to make a lot of money. To this end, he deeded the land to the city with provisions that streetcars and trucks would not be allowed to use the street.

Roderick's book begins with the street's origin and traces the evolution of Wilshire into today's hot-spot of commerce, culture, education and cuisine.  The book primarily moves from east to west, a direction that mostly corresponds with the chronological evolution of the boulevard (except for the western end in Santa Monica, which was an active street long before Wilshire made his grant).

Three houses on Wilshire Blvd, 1900 (the house on the right belonged to Otis).
With prose, vintage photographs — including what is claimed to be the first known photograph of the street — and vintage ephemera like postcards and advertising material, Roderick fills each chapter with detail after detail about the history of the people, buildings and businesses that populated the boulevard. He also keeps track of the larger cultural touchstones through each age, like its early days as a row of mansions owned by prominent Angelenos such as Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times (a large collection of photos of the grand houses — almost all demolished long ago — can be found at the Wilshire Boulevard Houses blog). Or its days as a shopping hub, when Bullock's art deco department store was an anchor of a second downtown (notably, it was was built for the age of the automobile: its main entrance was in the back, facing a parking lot, with a curving driveway leading to an elegant porte cochere (carport) where attentive valets would take or return your car). Or the early days of Westwood Village, back when it was a quaint, human-scaled European-styled village, not the overcrowded urban canyon we see today, and when the location for UCLA was chosen to help sell real estate.**

A Detailed, Extravagantly-Illustrated Book without Any Maps
Reading Roderick's book was an enjoyable experience and gave me a new understanding of the evolution of Los Angeles.  However, I often got lost in the numerous details about the notable buildings and people, and often ended up skimming a bit — some areas have or had so many important buildings that some paragraphs seemed like lists and it was hard to keep track of the who, what, where, why and when.   With so much detail, I often thought that this book could make an amazing multi-media experience (like a mobile phone app).  Or perhaps, a series of annotated maps or cards (like the San Francsico Bay Trail Maps)***.  With a little bit of work, you could make the book a DIY guidebook to explore Wilshire's past and experience its present.

Despite the lavish illustrations, the book doesn't contain any maps. None. Zero. Not even one. Had the book been one-hundred per cent text, that would make some sense from a cost standpoint, but in a book with scores of full-color photos and illustrations, how can the author not have any maps? I would have been interested to see how Wilshire grew — what did it look like in 1900, 1920, etc.? What streets did it absorb and when? I did some digging on my own to try and get answers, and future posts will present some historical maps that have helped satisfy my curiosity.

Despite the major flaw of going map-less, Roderick's Wilshire Boulevard is essential reading for anyone who spends time on Wilshire Bouldvard or has interest in Los Angeles's history, architecture or urban development. I did not take careful notes on specific locations as I read the book, but I'm sure the my next extended visit to Los Angeles will have me looking at Wilshire Boulevard more carefully and with a better appreciation for its history.

Image Credits
Photo of book cover from the publisher (Angel City Press).  Photo of Wilshire Blvd residences from the Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection, 1900.  Photo of Urban Light by the author

Other Resources
  • One of KCRW radio's former programs — The Politics of Culture — once had an episode that consisted of a long interview with Kevin Roderick.  The last time I checked the KCRW archive, streaming was promised but not functional. Perhaps it survives somewhere on the internet for download or streaming. I listened to it again recently and it is quite interesting.
  • A Curbed Los Angeles post on the street grid obtains much of its information from a recent book from HeyDay Press called LAttitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas
  • The Los Angeles Conservancy has information about the boulevard's history
  • A few historical photographs of the area around the intersection of Wilshire and San Vicente at Southland
  • The book pointed me to the 1988 film Miracle Mile, which has its principal settings at the Park La Brea complex, the Page Museum, Johnie's Coffee Shop, and on Wilshire Boulevard (near LACMA). I thought it was OK. There must be plenty of other films set on Wilshire, but I doubt any as focused as Miracle Mile.
* How long before Levitated Mass or Urban Light appears in a sci-fi or superhero movie or TV show? I can imagine Levitated Mass being thrown by a superhero at an invading alien spacecraft, or the streetlights in Urban Light used as fighting sticks or spears by super-strong heroes or villans. Or have they already appeared? Or does LACMA not allow its sculpture to be used in popular art?  In any case, are any sci-fi or superhero films or TV shows even set in Los Angeles anymore?  All I see seem to be set in fake cities but filmed in Vancouver (The Flash, Arrow), or set in San Francisco (they love to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge...) or New York (The Avengers).

** Richard Saul Wurman's 1991 edition of Los Angeles Access contains this biting commentary about Westwood: "Westwood attracts property speculators as a stray dog collects fleas, and they have trashed what may once have been LA’s most charming village.  Banal apartment and office towers have turned Wilshire Blvd into a traffic-clogged canyon.  The Mediterranean-style shopping village, created by a single visionary developer 60 years ago, has been cheapened by a proliferation of undistinguished banks, shacks, and fast-food chains. Modestly-scaled houses on leafy side streets are giving way to filing cabinets of stunning mediocrity that strain at the zoning limits and erode the spirits of place."

*** The Angels Walk LA self-guided walking tour information for Wilshire covers the stretch between Alvarado and Western.  Free downloads of maps and guides are available and if I remember correctly, there are signs along the street.

Random Link from the Archive:  Eggplant Curry

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Port size perspective: how big are the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles?

Photo of ships and cranes at the Port of Long Beach

In my review of The Box, I noted that containerization required ports to cover much more ground to support cranes, container storage, roadways, and so forth. To illustrate the size of major modern ports, let's take a look at the Ports of LA and Long Beach. These are the two largest ports in the United States, handling approximately 6.8 million TEU at Long Beach and 8.3 million TEU at Los Angeles in 2015. (TEU is the standard benchmark in the container port world, and stands for twenty-foot equivalent unit, which represents a container that is twenty-feet long.  A thirty foot container, therefore, would be 1.5 TEU.)

I have driven around the port areas a few times (once even getting lost on the peninsula west of downtown Long Beach and almost getting stuck in a lengthy line of trucks waiting to get into the port).  The port complexes seemed endless:  crane after crane, vast expanses of stacked containers, roads going every which way, scores of trucks.  But how would the ports' size compare to well-known geographies?

One way to check would be to draw an outline around the ports on a map, then drop that outline onto a map of a well-known place. 

The first map below shows my rough outline of the ports' boundaries on a map from the U. S. Geological Service's National Map project. The word rough should be emphasized, since I don't know the exact boundaries of the ports and it's possible that there are other entities that own some of the land. Nonetheless, it's a good enough estimate for this simple exercise.

Map of Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach from USGS

To give some regional context, I dropped the outline onto a map of southern Los Angeles County. On this map, the ports loom large, covering a pretty big area on the southern boundary that is about the size of city of Santa Monica.

Map of southern Los Angeles County with port boundaries. USGS map.

Next, let's compare the ports to something a bit smaller than southern LA County: the City of San Francisco. The outline covers almost one-half of the city:  from the outer Richmond and Sunset to the eastern bayshore, from the Marina to Twin Peaks.

Map of San Francisco with port boundaries.  Base map from USGS.

The next map puts the ports on top of parts of New York City, showing that they would cover Manhattan below Central Park, as well as the neighboring East River and a small section of Brooklyn. 

Map of New York with port boundaries.  Base map from USGS.

Of course, some caveats are in order. 1)  The ports are two separate entities that just happen to be next to one another, so perhaps a fairer look would consider about one-half of the outlined area.  Even in that case, each port is quite large, covering almost one-eighth of San Francisco or Manhattan below Central Park.  2) There is a lot of water within the boundary that I drew, which perhaps shouldn't be included in port area.  On the other hand, these are shipping ports, so a significant amount of open waterways are necessary to bring ships in and out.  It would probably not be hard to find official statistics on port acreage and then create some equivalent size boxes (I'll put that off until another day).   3) This post is a follow-up to my review of "The Box," and the two ports handle more than just shipping containers. They also import and export bulk goods, odd-sized items, vehicles (via "roll-on, roll-off" ships), oil, and other non-containerized items.

Image Credits

All maps are from the USGS's National Map project and are in the public domain.  Top photo taken by the author during a tour of the Port of Long Beach.

Random link from the archive: More fun items from the March 27, 1898 New York Herald

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book Review: "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger," by Marc Levinson

Photo of bananas being unloaded in New York, from U.S. National Archives Flickr page

From Chaos to Order
If you watched a ship loading or unloading in the early 1950s, it wouldn't look that much different than it would have in the 1850s or even the ancient world. Sure, the port of 1950 might have forklifts and motorized cranes, but like long ago nearly every piece of cargo would be touched by a person. Furthermore, the ship's holds would be crammed with a wide variety of cargo — industrial goods, food, clothing, chemicals — all packed together to maximize the carrying capacity of the ship and maintain seaworthiness. This made loading and unloading an arduous and dangerous processes. For example, the 60-kilogram sacks of green coffee in a pile in the aft hold would be carried one by one to a pallet in the center of the hold. The port's crane would lift the pallet to the dock, where it would be shuttled to a storage area. Or, more likely, the bags were just piled onto the docks to be sorted later. To make matters even worse, the tight packing and limited access to the holds meant that ships often needed to be completely unloaded and the docks cleared before loading could begin, thus keeping the ship tied up even longer. This chaotic, expensive and body-breaking process meant that cargo ships often spent a week in port, resulting in a high fraction of the shipping expenses being port-related.

Photo of containers and crane at Port of Long Beach

Contrast this with today's container ports. Soon after the container ship ties up at the dock, a team of cranes starts stripping the ship of its hundreds of containers like a flock of vultures removing the flesh from a dead animal. Every two minutes or so, a crane grabs a container, carries it to the dock, sets it on a waiting truck trailer or train car, which then carries it to a storage area or the customer's destination. On some docks, there is more than one crane working each ship, which speeds the process even more. This goes on around the clock for 24 to 48 hours, whereupon the reloading begins. The cargo is protected from the elements, relatively safe from theft (getting free stuff, like bottles of booze, radios, and other small things used to be a fringe benefit of dock work), and ready to hit the road or the rails.

Shipping by container is a relatively new development, and it took many years to evolve from a hunch to a world-wide method. How we got from the random-pack chaos to container order is the subject of The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by Marc Levinson (Princeton University Press, 2006). Levinson, an economist and writer, is interested in three themes: how transportation technology evolves, the importance of innovation, connection between transportation costs and economic geography ("who makes what where'). Along the way, he explores the birth of the modern container, its effects on port labor, the challenge of standardizing containers, and how they ended up changing the nature of ports and world trade.

I have been wanting to read "The Box" for quite a while. Living a few miles from the Port of Oakland (the 5th largest port in the U.S.) and working in the diesel emission control industry, port operations intersect with my life: during my many years of commuting through Oakland on I-880, I'd drive alongside many trucks hauling containers to and from the port; the above-ground stretch of BART between the 12th Street station and the transbay tube provides expansive views of the container storage area and the cranes; on my infrequent ferry rides across San Francisco Bay, the ferry travels next to the containership docks; port trucks were always an important market for my company; and, of course, there's a chance that some of the many imported goods I use came through the Port of Oakland.

The Trucker Who Shook Up the Transportation Networks
The hero of Levinson's book is Malcolm McLean, the person most often credited as the driver of containerization. Born in 1913 in North Carolina, McLean grew up in relative affluence. In the midst of the Depression, he more or less fell into the trucking business, and founded a one-truck trucking company in 1934. Driven to succeed through relentless cost-cutting, a willingness to gamble, and refusal to go along with "that's just the way we do things" thinking, his company grew steadily, from 11 trucks in 1935 to 617 trucks in 1954, with steady revenue growth (and plenty of debt — McLean's companies were always highly leveraged).

In McLean's early container explorations, he wasn't thinking about completely reorganizing the global shipping ecosystem — he simply wanted to get his trucks up and down the Atlantic coast in less time for less money. His first idea was to load truck trailers onto specially designed barges, sail the coastal waterways to the next destination, and unload the trailers. The idea was soon followed by a plan to deposit just the trailer container (not the wheels and frame, which took up valuable space), thus freeing valuable space and dramatically reducing costs. Levinson recounts an early cost calculation involving a shipment of beer. McLean's team estimated that the current "breakbulk" methods would cost about $8 per ton to ship from Newark to Miami. Using containers, the estimate was an astonishing $0.25 per ton — over 90% cheaper!
Fig. 2 in U.S. Patent 3,042,227, inventor Keith W. Tantlinger;  original assignee, Sea Land Service;  issued July 3, 1962

McLean was ahead of his time: the suggestion to link transportation modes was incomprehensible to most in the industry and government, and he no doubt heard many comments like "that simply isn't done...", "trucking, railroads and ships are completely different universes — it makes no sense to combine them," "our regulations aren't set up to handle your plan." Shaking off the negativity, his companies pressed on, building prototype containers, designing cranes, and retrofitting an old tanker to hold containers, and finally running real-world experiments. Eventually, he had enough equipment to make a full-scale test run between two ports. It began on April 26, 1956, when 58 containers were loaded onto the Ideal-X in New Jersey. Five days later, they were unloaded in Houston, making this the first significant container shipping event in history.

To be sure, McLean wasn't the first to think that containers should be used shipping — many small attempts had been made in previous decades. But McLean's critical realization is that container shipping requires an entire ecosystem of infrastructure and dramatically new ways of doing business: expensive specialized cranes, truck trailers that are compatible, rail cars that are compatible, an inventory of containers, land to store containers, business integration between the modes of travel, and so on. He and his associates had the drive and financial resources to keep pushing forward, to keep taking risks. Levinson writes,

Malcolm McLean's fundamental insight, commonplace today but quite radical in the 1950s, was that the shipping industry's business was moving cargo, not sailing ships. That insight let him to a concept of containerization quite different from anything that had come before. McLean understood that reducing the cost of shipping goods required not just a metal box but an entire new way of handling freight. Every part of the system — ports, ships, cranes, storage facilities, trucks, trains, and the operations of the shippers themselves — would have to change. In that understanding, he was years ahead of almost everyone else in the transportation industry. His insights ushered in change so dramatic that even the experts at the International Container Bureau, people who had been pushing containers for decades, were astonished at what he had wrought. As one of that organization's leaders confessed later, "we did not understand that at that time a revolution was taking place in the U.S.A." (p 53)

Along the way, McLean's enthusiasm convinced others to get into the container game, which eventually required international standards to be created so that everyone's hardware could get along.

Developing Standards, Dealing with Labor, the Importance of the Vietnam War
Levinson extensively covers the years between the early days of containerization and the big boom in the late 1960s, devoting chapters to international standardization (so that containers can be held by all ships, lifted by all cranes, etc.), the turmoil in the labor markets caused by containerization (the responses on the east and west coasts were quite different), and the effect of the Vietnam War on container shipping (it played an important role, providing huge revenues to support expansion of containerization).

Photo of containers and truck at Port of Long BeachHow Containerization Changed the Ports
One of my most significant take-aways was a new appreciation of the tremendous land-side changes caused by containerization. In the old days, the port was part of a tight-knit ecosystem of customs brokers, manufacturing and retail, and they had "prospered by interrupting the flow of trade." Ships were small, significant time and labor were needed to unload them, so it made sense to put the piers were the people were, e.g., with scores of piers along the waterfronts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Baltimore and San Francisco.

The container era, in contrast, is all about efficiency and utilization of equipment. To have a container port that will attract ships and cargo, you need waterways, land, access and money.  You need deep channels and long docks for the ships, a lot of land to handle containers, good access to road and rail networks, and money to make the investments. In the Bay Area, Oakland had these but San Francisco did not, so Oakland became the major regional port. In the New York area, the New Jersey waterfront near Newark had these items, so New York's major port moved across the Hudson in the 1960s. In the mid-Atlantic United States, Hampton Roads, Virginia took much of Baltimore's cargo because its coastal location allows four more trips per year for ships sailing back and forth to Europe. When your shipping company is highly leveraged and your containerships are costing more than $50 million each, it's imperative to keep them at sea as much as possible.

The shore-side network and high cost of ships might help explain the dominance of the megaports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Amazingly, even though they are in the far southwest of the country and their transportation networks are often overtaxed, approximately 33% of imports to the U.S. flow through those two ports (by weight, see "Import MT" in this spreadsheet from MARAD). This happens because so much of our trade is with Asia, and it makes more financial sense to bring cargo to LA/LB and then move it across the country by train and truck than to travel through the Panama Canal or around South America to reach ports on the East Coast or Gulf Coast (the Canal is expensive and too small for the biggest ships).

The world of container ports is like so many other parts of the modern economy: the rich get richer, the poor get left behind. Successful ports can plow their profits — or public money that is appropriated because of lobbying muscle — into improvements like new cranes, deeper channels, integrated systems like the Alameda Corridor in L.A. County.  These improvements increase throughput and make them more attractive to the bigger and bigger ships that are sailing the seas.

How Containerization Changed the World
Levinson argues that the container is a critical element in globalization: massive trade between far-flung regions would simply not be possible using old-style shipping. The container revolution also shaped the contours of globalization separating nations into the haves and have-nots of modern ports. If a country has efficient ports, it's more likely to get international contracts that take advantage of lower costs. Without that expensive infrastructure, fewer ships will call on your port to pick up your exports. The rapid reduction in shipping over water also creates major advantages for coastal regions. For example, Levinson notes that it costs $2500 to transport a container from Baltimore to Durban, South Africa. To move that container from Durban a few hundred miles to Maseru, Lesotho costs about $7500 (p 270). 

Superports have downsides, of course. They concentrate air pollution in a relatively small area (a piece I wrote for Eat Local Challenge a while ago describes this in detail). Although the ports are making progress, especially on truck pollution (e.g., improved truck technology, rerouting trucks, shore power for ships) whenever you have so many emitters in one space, it's not good for breathers. Good arguments can also be made that the low cost of shipping goods around the world can create labor and environmental injustices (e.g., large corporations exploiting workers around the world).

As I reviewed the book again while writing this piece, I was impressed by the scope and level of detail provided by Levinson in The Box, and often wanted to dive in again. Levinson's writing can be evocative, like this one from the opening chapter:

An arriving ship might be carrying 100-kilo bags of sugar or 20-pound cheeses nestled next to 2-ton steel coils. Simply moving one without damaging the other was hard enough. A winch could lift the coiled steel out of the hold, but the sugar and cheese needed men to lift them. Unloading bananas required the longshoremen to walk down a gangplank carrying 80-pound stems of hard fruit on their shoulders. Moving coffee meant carrying fifteen 60-kilo bags to a wooden pallet placed in the hold, letting a winch lift the pallet to the dock, and then removing each bag from the pallet and stacking it atop a massive pile. (p. 17)

However, unless you love details about financial arrangements and corporate organization, you'll run across many sections that are long strings of statistics or explanations of complicated business arrangements (joint ventures, debt loads, mergers, spin-offs, etc.). And so I found myself skimming a bit until the narrative picked up again. Nonetheless, the story of how the container took over world trade is an fascinating story and if you want to understand the origins of today's global economy, The Box is essential reading.

Coincidentally, as I was writing this, NPR's Planet Money re-ran an episode about the history of the shipping container. As part of a series of stories about how their special T-shirts were made, some of the team are visiting a port in Columbia where a portion of the Planet Money T-shirts are being loaded onto a containership. One of the guests in the piece is Marc Levinson. The episode is The Humble Innovation at the Heart of the Global Economy.

Photo of ship, containers and crane at Port of Long Beach

Photo credits

Photo of bananas being unloaded in New York, from U.S. National Archives Flickr page, no known copyright restrictions (created for the National Research Project)

Figure 2 in U.S. Patent 3042227, "Shipboard Freight Container Transferring Apparatus" (inventor, Keith W. Tantlinger;  original assignee, Sea Land Service;  issued July 3, 1962).  Sea-Land Service was one of the companies that McLean controlled.  The company went through various owners over the years, and most recently was purchased by Maersk and renamed SeaLand, so when you see a container marked SEALAND or some variation, it has a connection to McLean. 

Photos of container ports by the author from the Port of Long Beach harbor tour in 2015.

Random link from the archive:  Oak Tree Galls

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Two Small Rants about Book Design Flaws

As I work on a book review that will certainly take me a while, here's a short rant about two elements of book design that can be irksome.  (For what it's worth, the book I'm reviewing — The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by Marc Levinson, has neither of these flaws.) 

Irker 1:  difficult to use endnotes.
There are good ways and bad ways to organize endnotes, making the notes easy to consult or more of a treasure hunt.

Let's start with one of the bad ways, something that makes me wonder if the book designer actually tried to find an endnote in the book — or could it be that my mind works differently than a book designer and the vast majority of readers.  This irksome design is shown in the next illustration, the top of page 476 of Taken for a Ride: Detroit's Big Three and the Politics of Pollution, by Jack Doyle, a monumental history of automobile pollution and battle for clean air in the United States.  

Page scan from Taken for a Ride, by Jack Doyle

The blocks are headed by the chapter number but not the chapter name — so, if you are like me and remember don't regularly remember the chapter number that you are reading, it can take a few steps to find the footnote:  go to the front of the chapter to get the number, go back to the endnote section, find the chapter block, then find the note.  I doubt that publishing software in past years was sophisticated enough to automatically generate the cross-reference lists, and so it would have required countless hours to manually create the page headings (headings which could all change if text was added or deleted).  However, it would not have been too hard to include the name of the chapter (I doubt those change much in the final stages of production).

Two excellent books that use good ways of presenting endnotes are Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America by Eric Jay Dolin and the superb Four Fish by Paul Greenberg (truly a must read book if you are interested in seafood and our damaged oceans).  The notes section in Four Fish shows the page number for each note, so it's simple to find the note you need.  Leviathan is even more helpful, providing a heading that lists the page number range. 

Page scan for page 266 from Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

Page scan from Leviathan by Eric Jay Dolin

Irker 2:  Narrow inner margins, wide outer margins (i.e., a gutter problem)
Some time ago, I was browsing the incredible selection of used cookbooks at Moe's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, and I picked up a thick, expensive cookbook about maximizing flavor (unfortunately, I don't recall the author or title).  The pages were beautiful, the recipes clearly presented.  But the inner margin (the "gutter") was so narrow that letters were swallowed up in the darkness, making the book only marginally usable, and definitely not a book I would purchase.  This flaw is especially bad for a cookbook, something that is often propped open in the kitchen during cooking.   One should not need to perform physical gyrations or break a book's spine to read the full text  To make things worse, the outside margins were quite generous, so a simple shift to the outside would have made the book much more pleasant to read.

I see this far too often (IMHO) and wonder why.  Is there some key principle of book design that I don't know about?  Or something inherent in the book printing process that requires such a layout?   

Random link from the archive: An adventure with live cuisine

Saturday, August 08, 2015

More on the Unswept Floor Mosaic from Ancient Rome

In a previous post, I commented on ancient Roman dining habits — tossing bones, shells, and scraps on the floor — and shared a mosaic that records this practice in exquisite detail. At the time, there were two things bothering me. First, what do we know about the mosaic? Second, it seemed a little strange to me that a rich Roman would have spent so much to mock Roman dining habits. Unlike a painting or sculpture, one can't easily move a mosaic if the subject becomes boring. It turns out that my hunch might have been correct, and that this floor was not a joke, but something much more serious.

At the University of California, Berkeley library, I found two books that had detailed discussions of the mosaic:  Die Sammlung antiker Mosaiken in den Vatikanischen Museen (The Collection of Ancient Mosaics in the Vatican Museums), by Klaus E. Werner, with contributions from Guido Cornini , Giuseppina and Claudia Ghirardini Barsanti, and Vaticano I Mosaici Antichi (Vatican Ancient Mosaics), by Paolo Liverani and Giandomenico Spinola. With neither book being in English, I turned to Google Translate to get a sense of the text. And it worked relatively well! The translations were ugly at times, but the meaning usually came through.

The Full Floor Context
The unswept floor that was shown in the photograph on Wikimedia Commons is actually a small part of a much larger mosaic, as this tiny picture of the surviving portion of the mosaic illustrates.

The mosaic was found in 1833 during construction work in the vineyard of Achille Lupi near the Bastione di Sangallo / Porta Ardeatina (see A Rome Art Lover’s Web Page for photos of the area). The best guess is that the work is from the time of Hadrian (who ruled from 117 to 138 CE), with alterations possibly made later in the Antonine era (138-192 CE), the Sevaran era (193-235 CE), and possibly even after Constantine (fourth century CE). [Werner]  One thing that is clear is the name of the artist, since it is at the edge of the mosaic near the room's entrance: "ERACLITO FECE", i.e., "Heraclitis made this." [Liverani and Spinola]

The entrance to the triclinum has six theatrical masks with other theatrical symbols on each side (olive branches, cloth, an amphora and more). The other three sides of the border are the unswept floor mosaic ("certainly inspired by the famous work of the mosaic Sosos Pergamum quoted by Pliny the Elder"). In the middle of the room is a reference to Egypt and the Nile with crocodiles, birds, aquatic plants, and figures representing Isis and Osiris. These three themes — the theater, an unswept post-banquet floor, and the Nile — are connected. They refer to the quest for intellectual and physical pleasures, with the Nile symbolizing the joining of the two (at the time, the Nile delta was regarded as a wonderful place to live, both for physical and intellectual reasons).  [Liverani and Spinola]

Memento Mori in Mosaic Form
Liverani and Spinola contend that the mosaic's remnants of a meal represent the death of the food. And so the unswept floor and theater motifs point to the memento mori —  "remember you must die"— and the fact that although the banquet, a theatrical performance and our lives must eventually end, we must make the most of them.  They write that Pythagoras describes a tradition of leaving inedibles on the floor until the feast was over because this food was meant for the dead [Ed. notes: 1) this sounds like an ancient equivalent of pouring one out, 2) Liverani and Spinola’s book has plenty of footnotes but they failed to note which of Pythagoras’s writings described this tradition.].  Consequently, the spirits would be irked if sweeping was premature. This section of the text contained a possibly illuminating phrase that wasn’t translated very well: "Ma in questo caso non sembra trattarsi di cibi caduti, quanto, invece, dei loro resti: fra questi avanzi traspare quindi solo il riflesso di un lusso che non inquina." —> "But in this case it does not seem to be of food falling, as, instead, of their remains: among these leftovers transpires then only the reflection of a luxury that does not pollute." I’m not sure what to make of this.  [Liverani and Spinola]

This interpretation makes more sense than the mosaic as a joke.  Having this theme in your main dining would show your guests that your are a pious, serious person who respects the ancestors.  At the same time, the themes remind the guests to have a good time.

Earlier Observations
I wasn't the first to come across these observations of Roman culture.  I recommend checking out these posts for further reading and photos of other unswept floor mosaics from the ancient world:
  • Mouse Interrupted: Historical background on the unswept floor design
  • (what is this?):  Photos of mosaics showing the unswept floor as well as photos of mosaics illustrating snarling dogs (an artistic version of the “beware of the dog” sign).  The unswept floor theme was used for a long time:  from at least the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE. 
  • (what is this?):  Commentary on the idea that the food mosaic was a tribute to the dead, and notes on memento mori.
Vaticano I Mosaici Antichi (Vatican Ancient Mosaics), by Paolo Liverani and Giandomenico Spinola, Musei Vaticani, 2002

Die Sammlung antiker Mosaiken in den Vatikanischen Museen (The Collection of Ancient Mosaics in the Vatican Museums), by Klaus E. Werner, with contributions from Guido Cornini , Giuseppina and Claudia Ghirardini Barsanti, Città del Vaticano : Monumenti Musei e Gallerie Pontificie, 1998

Photo credit:  Photo of Roman mosaic from Wikimedia Commons, deeded to the public domain by the creator.

Random link from the archive: Bulgur salad a slate for summer's bounty