Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Thoughts about Boxes from the Louisville Big Four Bridge

The ramp up the Big Four Bridge looking west towards Downtown Louisville

Forty-two workers perished while constructing the Big Four Railroad Bridge between 1888 and 1895. It served railway, industrial, and passenger traffic until 1969. And then it sat, idle and unused for forty years. Today, the Big Four Bridge is one of the longest pedestrian-only bridges in the world and spans the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky and Jeffersonville, Indiana. On either side of the bridge, gently sloping ramps spiral down into lovely new riverfront parks built on former industrial land and shipyards. When strolling the bridge and imagining the bustling riverboat traffic passing beneath the massive iron spans, imagining the brawling dockworkers, the shouts of factory men, the fading smells and sounds of the riverside stockyards, one wonders. What changed?

Why are there no longer so many chemical refineries, textile mills, riverboats and dockworkers hawking their trade along America's inland riverways? Why are so many inland riverfront parks being built on areas that were formerly railroad warehouses, brothels, and piers in cities spanning from Portland to New York? Why are the old warehouses being converted into chic industrial lofts and trendy restaurants, or lying abandoned, instead of housing wares? What changed in the 20th century to fundamentally rearrange the geographic relationship between ports and cities and labor and nations? When asked most people will grumble something about cheap foreign labor. But I think the answer, in large part, is containers.

The former riverboat and boxcar railroad transportation network of the late 19th century and early 20th century has been almost entirely displaced by multi-modal shipping, in which 40-foot standardized steel containers are seamlessly whisked between giant ocean-going container ships, specially designed freight railways, and trucks traveling America's interstate highways. It wasn't always like this.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller 
and the World Economy Bigger [Left]. The Big Four bridge [Right].

According to The Box by Marc Levinson, starting in the late 1950s the humble steel shipping container revolutionized and reorganized the world economy. Prior to that time, industry often clustered near waterfronts in large port cities in order to minimize costs and time delays for receiving raw inputs and for shipping out finished goods for export. Loading and unloading ships was a labor intensive, time consuming, and dangerous process. Goods came in all shapes and sizes, from bunches of bananas, to barrels of liquor, to hogsheads of tobacco, to crates of medical supplies, to bales of cotton. Dockworkers would quarrel, frequently strike for increased wages, lobby for special protections to prevent competition from immigrant dockworkers, and often endure boom and bust cycles of too much work to handle or no work at all. Theft of dockside merchandise was rampant. Ships could languish tied to the docks for weeks, waiting to exchange cargo and set sail again. The romance of this hustle and bustle life of the wharf-side denizens has been told again and again in literature and in cinema. But the story of the enormous economic inefficiencies of the old way, and the revolutionary change brought about by the extremely low cost of modern container shipping, I think is widely under-appreciated.

Dockworkers unloading bananas at the wharves in New York in 1905
[Photo from Shorpy.com]

Longshoremen loading the Sternwheeler Georgia Lee 
with mixed cargo in Louisville, KY (1905)
[photo from Shorpy.com]

Today container ports can be largely automated and require relatively little human labor per ton of cargo to handle the containers. The turn-around time for a modern ocean-going container ship is measured in hours, not days or weeks. The resulting economic bonanza brought about by low-cost shipping, reduced theft and damage, and increased shipping speed has been one of the main driving forces reshaping the global economy. The reason for the shift of manufacturing capacity from Europe and America to Asia was not just about changes in the global costs of manufacturing labor, it was also about fundamental changes in the global costs of shipping.

A crane loading a container ship at the Port of Colombo in Sri Lanka

People often forget that humble innovations that completely change the living patterns of the whole world aren't always sexy, and they aren't always fast. World-changing ideas are not just about computers and rocket ships. It took half a century or more for the revolution in containerized shipping to rearrange the destinies of the waterfronts of Manhattan and Shenzhen, and launch those locations into completely different historical trajectories.

As you gaze down the Ohio River from the span of the Big Four pedestrian bridge in Louisville, or cast your eyes along the Thames from the base of the Tower Bridge, remember that we may have lost a little bit of the romance of the Dickensian docks and the Mark Twain riverboats. But we have gained so much more in livable city waterfronts, beautiful riverfront parks, less expensive imported goods and raw materials, and an increasingly integrated and thriving world economy. And for that, I'm thankful for The Box.

February Sunset at the Big Four Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky

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