[EPISODE] Containers: The Ships, the Tugs and the Port

Huge container-moving cranes dot the waterfronts of San Francisco and Oakland while hulking container ships dominate the waterways of the Bay Area. But this was not always the case. In the eight-part audio documentary series Containers, Alexis Madrigal explores how the rise of container shipping and the evolution of global trade have transformed economies and shaped cities around the world.

Boston Docks in Lincolnshire, England, circa 1908

Before container ships, cargo-laden vessels would pull up directly alongside long piers jutting out from the shore. Loading and unloading them involved a chaotic mix of people and machines, all rushing to get things on and off vessels of various shapes and sizes. There would be “hundreds of people running around … guys working winches and mini-cranes , forklifts and trucks” all over the place, explains Madrigal. Goods stored in hulls were pulled up and put into cargo sheds — “the notion of the docks and of the waterfront, the charismatic place people know and understand” comes from this era of shipping.

Riding a tugboat up to a container ship in the Port of Oakland with Alexis Madrigal

Containers and their standardization fundamentally changed how docks are designed and operated. Interstitial steps were streamlined or eliminated thanks to a system of identical modules. These could be offloaded and stacked nearby then quickly loaded onto trucks and trains. Goods that had been visible moving into and out of the hulls of ships were suddenly hidden inside big modular boxes.

Containerization changed not only the ways goods are moved around the world but also the way cities work. Container ships couldn’t fit into the existing pier network, requiring ports to be redesigned to accommodate the vessels. Increased loading automation wiped out jobs but also left huge districts of relatively empty warehouses (ripe for reuse by artists and others willing to live in old industrial areas). Still, there are some jobs left in the industry for people like truck drivers, crane operators, tugboat dispatchers, skippers and captains.

In this third episode of Containers, “we go inside working life on the San Francisco Bay to see how brutal competition among shipping companies threatens the viability of the small businesses that ply the waters. Meet a tugboat dispatcher, a skipper, and the first female captain of an American freighter. It’s a case study in how globalization works and our first look at the challenges the port faces.” You can catch up with episodes 1 and 2 (above and below) and tune in for more on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, Spotify, Google Play or iHeartRadio.

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