Small Pieces Loosely Joined


In her final New York Times column, Virginia Postrel explains how the shipping container, "as generic as the 1's and 0's of computer code," transformed the world:

When the first container ship set sail 50 years ago, businesses and regulators treated distribution not as a single process but as a series of distinct modes: ships, trucks and trains. Every time the transportation mode changed, somebody had to transfer physically every box or barrel….

Today, by contrast, "you can call one of the big international ship lines, tell them to pick up your container in Bangkok, which is not a port, and tell them to deliver it in Dallas, which is not a port, and they will make the arrangements to get it to a port and get it on a ship and get it off at another port and get it onto a train or truck and get it where it needs to be," [economist Marc] Levinson said….

In the container age, any city with good port facilities, including feeder rail and truck lines, can compete with any place in the same large region. Seattle can take business from Oakland, and Hampton Roads can attract shippers from New York. That heightens competition among ports.

In a postscript on her blog, Virginia notes that "today's fully integrated systems became possible only after trucking and rail were deregulated in the 1970s and maritime rates were deregulated (to very little fanfare) in 1984. Assumptions about transportation regulation have changed so radically that reading about the bad old days seems like science fiction." Some particularly perverse examples follow.