Shipping Line, Port and Route Dynamics of US Shipment Imports

Govind Chandrasekhar
The Ecommerce Intelligencer
4 min readJan 14, 2020


This is the first in an article series in which we attempt to unearth dynamics of the shipping industry, by analyzing publicly available import shipment data in the United States.

In this article, we’ll take a look at market share dynamics for shipping lines — businesses that transport cargo aboard ships — and see how they’ve varied over the last few years. We’ll also look at traffic into ports in the US, origin ports from which the shipments leave, and the route links taken. The goal in exploring these questions is to understand market dynamics around key players, geographical locations and entrenched behaviors in the market, and trace how dynamics have changed through the years as market forces have had their say.

The answers to these questions come from an analysis of publicly available import data from the United States Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Automated Manifest System. This data spans approximately five years, and covers 180 million data points. Here’s what we found.

Shipping Lines

Maersk was the largest player in the market in 2018 with 8.2% of the share of import shipments. This share was not definitive though, since several other players in the market had comparable shares. Despite this seemingly fragmented nature of the market, the top 15 players were noted to be in charge of 80% of all imports.

The share in 2018 is very similar to the market share taken over a five year period between 2014 and 2018.

In fact, none of the major shipping lines saw a change in market share of more than 1.3% for the period examined. This shows that the entrenched leadership is very difficult to displace.

Which shipper lines have seen the largest growth in recent years? Using 2014 numbers as a baseline, we looked at shipper lines with at least 10,000 shipments in the period considered to generate the following graph.

Destination Ports

Next up, we looked at the ports most likely to be listed as the port of unlading in bills of lading. Here are the ports that received the most shipment traffic in 2018.

The top 3 ports service more than 50% of all shipments into the United States, while the top 15 cover more than 95% of all shipments. California’s top two ports alone bear more than a third of all traffic.

This pattern has been consistent over the last 5 years within only minor changes. For example, Charleston South Carolina, Houston Texas and Miami Florida have each seen a growth in 0.5% of the share of shipments.

Origin Ports

A look at origin shows where most import goods emerge from:

When this visual is normalized by country, we see the overwhelming dominance of China emerge, both in 2018 and over the last 5 years.

Here’s how the share of shipments has changed over the years:

Surprisingly, the biggest percentage change was seen in goods originating from China. Note, of course, that this represents change in percentage share relative to the total number of shipments in the time period considered.

This phenomenon can have a variety of explanations including tariffs, trade performance of other countries, shifts towards higher value goods and more. We will explore some of these phenomena in future articles in this series.


Finally, we look at the actual shipment routes listed on bills of lading.

Some interesting changes in shipment routes include more than 30% drops in traffic between Shanghai-Washington and Pusan-Los Angeles. And an approximately 20% rise in traffic between Bremerhaven-Charleston and Ningpo-Long Beach.

In the next article in this series, we will dig deeper into these routes, with a specific focus on identifying shipment delays.

In articles beyond, we will also look at the categories/HTS codes of the commodities shipped, freight forwarders involved in these shipments, challenges with shipping data of relevance to risk management and more.

For logistics related customs risk assessment and revenue management solutions, schedule a call with us.

This article was originally published on the Semantics3 Blog