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North American Ports Report

The narrative for ports this past year was full of dramatic twists and turns. The COVID-19 pandemic sent consumer sectors into disarray, which initially caused merchants and suppliers to cut orders due to an expected decrease in consumer spending.

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What a year it has been for both people and ports around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic, now passing its one-year anniversary mark in North America, has dramatically impacted lives and economies in ways that will be felt for years.  

After a quick pullback in spring 2020, consumers around the world began spending on imported goods at a rapid clip, caused in part by the inability to shop in brick-and-mortar retail. The resulting explosive demand drove unprecedented amounts of containerized products from Asia to the wealthy consumer economies of North America—and projected import traffic shows no signs of abatement through the first quarter of 2021.  

After initial pandemic-induced weakness in the first half of the year, ports in the U.S. and Canada rebounded strongly in the second half of 2020. Volumes for the full year changed only modestly—a 2% increase in loaded inbound twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) and a decline of 5.5% on loaded export units.  

Key findings of the report include: 

  • Coastal split: There was no shift in 2020 of East-West port coastal shares, marking a pause in a decade-long trend that favored the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. We expect the longer-term trend to resume in 2021.  
  • Vessel size, alliances and calls: The trend toward larger vessels continues. Along with consolidation of the major ocean lines into three powerful alliances, this translated to fewer port calls, and a further concentration of volume to the largest ports.  
  • West Coast: 2020 impacted the main West coast ports differently. Long Beach and Vancouver, for example, experienced considerable growth in import volumes, but Northwest Seaport Alliance import volumes declined. Overall, there was a 2.4% increase in loaded import container TEUs. 
  • East and Gulf Coasts: Strong performances were delivered on import volumes at New York-New Jersey (NY/NJ) and Savannah, as well as Houston on the Gulf Coast. Overall, import growth on the Atlantic ports we track was a modest 1.3%.  
  • Future challenges: The story in the coming months is about COVID-19 vaccinations and a return to some kind of normalcy. This should drive demand for goods as well as services. Further out, the threat of tariffs or other trade disruptions, notably with China, still looms. Ports also face the need to restore shippers’ confidence in the aftermath of congestion and severely delayed cargo. 
Find out more about the economic impact on port activity and the trends expected to impact 2021 in our North American Ports Report, including the following topics: 

  • Macroeconomic drivers of port volume 
  • Competitive performance of key ports 
  • Six trends to watch 
  • North American ports overview 


David Bovet and Tom Keane of New Harbor Consultants, Cushman & Wakefield’s port consulting partner, contributed to this report. 

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