The five waves of containerization

Today it is hard to imagine the transportation of goods without the container. The famous 20-foot box, which began to gain in popularity in the 1960s, has revolutionized maritime transportation. Quebecer Jean-Paul Rodrigue, who holds a PhD in transport geography, has studied the phenomenon of containerization in great detail. Prof. Rodrigue has been in the United States for more than 10 years now and teaches at Hofstra University in the State of New York.

In a study entitled The Waves of Containerization: Shifts in Global Maritime Transportation, which he co-authored with David Guerrero of the Université de Paris-Est, Prof. Rodrigue identified five waves that represent the growth of containerization on international maritime routes.

1st Wave: The Pioneers (1960-1975)

The first container terminal at the Port of Montreal, at Section 70, was put into service on November 12, 1968.

Pioneer ports establish container-handling operations in the countries of the economic triad: North America, Western Europe, Australia and Japan. 

Representative ports: Antwerp, New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Nagoya and Yokohama.

2nd Wave: The Adopters (1970-1985)

This period corresponds to the expansion of containerization in the countries of the triad as well as with their regional trade partners. Ports in the Caribbean, Latin America, the Mediterranean and among the emerging East Asian Tigers (Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong) equip themselves. As international trading relationships intensify, container ports add to their long list of maritime services.

Representative ports: Rotterdam, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Kaohsiung, Jeddah and Kingston.

3rd Wave: Global Diffusion (1980-1990)

There is massive diffusion of containerization particularly in new markets such as East and Southeast Asia (not including China). Transshipment of containers begins. As the number of container ports increases, the network strategy to serve them favours a shift from point-to-point services along pendulum routes to the use of hub-and-spoke services from strategically located hub ports where goods are transshipped onto vessels.

Representative ports: Singapore, Colombo, Busan, Dubai and Algeciras.

4th Wave: Standardization (1995-2005)

The container becomes the standard means for global freight distribution, particularly with the industrialization of China and the development of major export ports. Big post-Panamax ships make their debut. The maritime transportation network becomes more complex and new transshipment ports are established to better link deep-sea services with regional ports such as Salalah, Colon and Freeport. Other ports are created to accommodate growth in emerging economies such as Vietnam, Mexico, India and Brazil.

Representative ports: Shanghai, Shenzhen, Gioia Tauro, Ningbo and Tanjung Pelepas. 

5th Wave: Peak Growth (2005 to today)


The expansion of containerization reaches a new peak. New container ports are niche ports that fill a specific role, such as a new gateway to cope with congestion on a route, or to serve a developing region. The Port of Prince Rupert, the only container port to emerge on the North American West Coast in recent years, is created to capitalize on short transpacific transit times and direct rail connections to the industrial heartland and notably Chicago.

Representative ports: Tangier Med, Caucedo, Yingkou and Prince Rupert.