The Indicator from Planet Money - Traffic Jam: Cargo Style

Residents of a small town in Washington state are troubled by something big... container ships. Why are they there? What does this say about the state of the global shipping industry?

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30 miles north of Seattle on the Puget Sound. There's this lovely little place called Whidbey Island. Most days. The Tranquil sounds of rolling waves and chirping birds. Make it a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. These days, we'll break from what I understand things are not so Serene, their residents have been complaining about. This rock is created, by these humongous container ships that are anchored off the shore of the island. Scott Joplin is the mayor of a town called Langley. I've been on the island, and I never recall seeing them there, except for maybe one last year and this year, it's almost I think since for the last few months, I've never not seen one. It's rare for these massive container ships to Anchor near Whidbey Island. In fact, it's rare for them to Anchor at all anywhere on the puter.

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Sound normally they just pulled it up to the port and start, unloading their cargo. But the Puget Sound is chock-full of container ships right now. And they're like anchor, and all over the place, and these ships are enormous, they can be the length of multiple football field. Several stories, high stacked with metal containers. From Costco, Apple. You name it. They can also make a lot of noise at night which has many would-be Islanders kind of cranky. Absolutely huge. They're so tall that they appear from the shore taller than the islands behind them. So they could have blocked the view of the island behind them. So what's going on? Why are there all these container ships at Whidbey? Island island is getting a front row, seat to a huge surge in demand for imports Imports that mostly come from East Asia, through West Coast ports. This is the indicator from Planet Money. I'm Greg result.

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And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith, do we tell the story of how the 4th. So clogged and what it means for the economy. Also very serious story of Greg not being able to get the bike he wants, please help me.

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In the early days of the pandemic global trade just tagged it was decimated shipping was so dramatic. The American scientist tell dislike once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study what happened to whales in the absence of a constant illusion of a vessel and Stacy. I got to say, I actually read the study recently, probably could have too much time on my hands and it said that the noise the ship's, make stresses the whales out. And I felt this poor residents on Whidbey Island, who are also getting stressed out by the noise and chips. It is not just Whidbey Island. That is seeing a traffic jam of massive container ships. It is all up and down the West Coast in the San Francisco Bay. The traffic jams have gotten so bad that the u.s. Coast Guard has been telling ships not to come into the bay at all. If he oversees vessel traffic for the Coast Guard in San Francisco and he says ships have been waiting for days.

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Sometimes over a week just to come in and drop off their cargo. It is completely abnormal. We've never had a situation since I've been here where ships have had to wait. Offshore is the CEO at Vespucci Maritime. And he spent twenty years studying the global container shipping industry. Has at least put in a state of chaos. That I don't think it has been in ever since it was invented in 1956 was the year that the first container ship set sail from Newark New Jersey and it kind of might be hard to Fathom like why that's actually a big deal. I mean, it's just like a ship with containers on it. I mean, literally metal boxes, but these metal boxes. Enable chips to carry dramatically more cargo and by standardizing shipping practices and using new machines, to handle the boxes shippers, were able to dramatically slash the cost and the time it takes to load unload and transport the cargo in the metal boxes. That these middle

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Boxes with increasing the efficiency of shipping. So much that it's stitched together, the global economy, more than anything before it literally like more than all free trade agreements put together, hold the power of the container, I can't contain myself but now that the ports are so clogged and backed up, it's making it more difficult for stores to restock their shelf, manufacturers car, makers, and Builders to get the parts they need and Farmers to export their produce here but it's also been making it really hard for me to get a bike. Like, I I go to this bike shop and they tell me the earliest they can get me. This bike is 2022. I complained about this to Robert at the coast guard in San Francisco in February and they said I might not see you until next February.

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I know you're waiting and waiting and connections that, you know, you're not.

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Unfortunately, I do not well, you know, it was worth it, but the real question is, how did we get here? So at the beginning of the pandemic, shipping company started, canceling, their trips and docking their giant ships. Then the economy, rebounded and American consumers, Unleashed this tidal wave of demand that swept through the country and the shipping industry because they started shifting their spending patterns for my services and haircuts and vacations to stuff like patio furniture outdoor grills, big TV, sets Electronics, new bikes bike stuff that largely comes from China on container ships. So we'd have this like historic surge of demand for imports and at the same time to pandemic has slowed down the industry's ability to handle all this new cargo not just at the ports. But you know what? Railroads, warehouses distribution centers, basically everywhere containers have been pile,

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Lipid dockyards and trains and trucks have been struggling to get them out fast enough. One of the largest container ships in the world. Got stuck sideways in the Suez Canal in Egypt. That blockage of course added greatly to the global shortage of ships and containers and clogged everything up. Even more, there was a covid-19 outbreak at a major port in South China, Lars Jenson the shipping, experts say that stranded even more ships and containers out at Sea and led to another clusterfest in China right now. We are at a point where there is very little it not enough capacity, they're not enough ships. They're not enough containers to move all the cargo we want to move with so much shipping capacity, bog down importers and exporters have been competing for scarce containers and vessels and beating up the price of shipping. The cost of shipping a container from China or East Asia to the West Coast.

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Has tripled since 2019 due to Rising shipping costs, are contributing to the inflation. We keep hearing about inflation of courses Rising prices and when it cost more to ship stuff you know some of that cost gets passed on to Consumers at the ports are creating shortages and supply chain disruption and with demand really high and supply low or unreliable that can also lead to price increases as far as when it might get better. Everyone. We spoke to said probably not anytime soon. The crazy part of all this is that it's not even considered peak season for the shipping industry. At that typically starts in August. When American stores start building up their inventories for the back-to-school and holiday season against the residents of Whidbey Island, or going to have to deal with the nuisance of humongous container ships for at least the foreseeable future.

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Kill the whales gray as will the whale not the whale.

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This episode of the indicator was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Michael, the indicators edited by Kate, concannon and is a production of NPR.

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