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2023 North American Cargo Volume Returns to Pre-Pandemic Levels

Port Watch Series Q4 2023

March 20, 2024 3 Minute Read

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Container volume increased in Q4, down year-over-year
Q4 2023 cargo container volume at the 14 major North American ports tracked by CBRE increased by 1.6% year-over-year. However, full-year 2023 20-foot equivalent unit (TEU) volume fell by 12% year-over-year from record highs in 2022. This drop was more notable at East Coast ports (-15%) than at West Coast ports (-10.8%).

Severe drought reduced Panama Canal traffic
The Panama Canal’s water levels fell dramatically, forcing authorities to reduce vessel traffic from 38 ships to 24 per day. This has delayed deliveries and increased shipping costs. The use of longer sea routes or land-based transportation could impact industrial space demand, especially in East and Gulf Coast markets.

U.S. to invest billions into port infrastructure
The U.S. federal government plans to invest over $20 billion in port infrastructure over the next five years. It aims to bolster the competitiveness and security of U.S. ports, modernize aging facilities, and strengthen domestic manufacturing capabilities. This includes onshoring port crane production.

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Q4 Cargo Container Volumes

  • Container volume is returning to pre-pandemic levels at most major ports after 2022’s record highs, when producers sharply increased inventory to meet strong consumer demand.
  • Manzanillo, Mexico was the only port with a year-over-year increase in 2023 container volume (6.5%). This port benefited from the near-shoring of manufacturing operations with TEUs rising to a record 3.7 million in 2023.
  • Canada’s Prince Rupert Port had the largest year-over-year drop in inbound TEU volume–down 32% in 2023.

Figure 1: Q4 TEU Volume Comparisons

 
Source: Various Port Authorities, CBRE Research, Q4 2023.

U.S. Seaport, Inland Port & Non-Port Market Fundamentals

  • Industrial vacancy rates rose across all three port types in Q4. Inland ports had the biggest increase, up 90 basis points (bps) to 6.0%, while seaports rose 40 bps to 4.6% and non-port markets 70 bps to 5.1%.
  • Seaport markets with the lowest vacancy rates: Los Angeles (2%), Portland (3.3%), Charleston (3.5%) and Miami (3.6%).
  • Non-port markets had the most combined Q4 net absorption, totaling 107 million sq. ft., led by Central Pennsylvania (13.4 million sq. ft.), Phoenix (13.2 million sq. ft.) and Indianapolis (10.5 million sq. ft.).
 

SPOTLIGHT: Port of Long Beach

  • In 2023, the Port of Long Beach reclaimed its position as North America’s second-busiest U.S. container port, having its largest year-over-year increase in activity during Q4.
  • The Port handles trade valued at $200 billion annually. It supports 2.6 million jobs across the nation, more than 575,000 jobs in Southern California and more than 50,000 jobs—or 1 in 5 locally—in Long Beach.
  • Imports through the Port of Long Beach mainly originate from Mainland China, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan. Top geographies for exported goods include many of these same countries as well as Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan.
  • In 2023, the Port of Long Beach’s top exports were nuts, cars and soybeans. Its top imports included crude petroleum, computers, electric batteries and video games.

History
The Port of Long Beach was founded in 1911 on 800 acres at the mouth of the Los Angeles River, four miles from the Port of Los Angeles. It is one of the few U.S. ports that accommodates today’s largest vessels, which can exceed 23,000 TEUs. It serves 175 shipping lines with connections to 217 seaports globally. Goods moving through the Port of Long Beach arrive at or depart from every county in the U.S. In 2023, the Port handled more than 8 million container units, its fifth-busiest year.

Sustainability
In 2021, the Port completed its decade-long Middle Harbor Redevelopment Project. Nearly 200 pieces of cargo-handling equipment, such as ship-to-shore cranes, automated guided vehicles and stacking cranes, now run entirely on electricity, as the world’s largest zero-emissions marine container terminal fleet.

Looking Ahead
Known as “The Green Port” since 2005, it aims for zero-emissions cargo handling by 2030 and a zero-emissions drayage truck fleet by 2035. Capital improvements over the next decade include an extensive rail support facility to move cargo more efficiently and reduce truck trips.

Port Fact

The Port of Long Beach plans to begin building the Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility later this year. This $1.6 billion project will enhance on-dock rail capacity at its shipping terminals, speeding deliveries across the entire national supply chain, easing congestion and lessening environmental impacts. This state-of-the-art facility will be built in phases, with the final segment’s planned completion in 2032.

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North America Seaport Cargo Statistics, Q4 2023

Figure 2: Q4 2023 TEU Container Activity

 
Source: Various Port Authorities, CBRE Research, Q4 2023.

North America Seaport Cargo Statistics, 2023

Figure 3: 2023 TEU Container Activity

 
Source: Various Port Authorities, CBRE Research, Q4 2023.

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