The Busiest Ports in the U.S.: An Overview

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An aerial view of a port with a bridge.

America’s ports are responsible for both the safe handling of billions of dollars in cargo trade, as well as supplying millions of jobs. These ports, which are crucial to the American and global economies, are designed, managed, and improved by civil engineers. Created with efficiency and safety in mind, these systems include unique environmental programs to maximize energy efficiency and reduce pollution, without sacrificing production and delivery schedules.

The civil engineers prepared to handle the busiest ports in the U.S. are highly skilled and highly educated. They often possess advanced degrees, such as a Master of Science in Civil Engineering, which help them understand and fulfill their job duties.

Busiest U.S. Ports

Through shipping, intercontinental trade is not only possible but effective and profitable. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. leads the world’s trading economy, importing and exporting more than $5.6 trillion worth of goods and services in 2019. The country also has trade relationships with over 200 territories, countries, and regional associations worldwide. It’s not a stretch to say that the United States is a long-standing, major player in ocean freight.

Among the busiest U.S. ports are the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and New York, and New Jersey.

Port of Los Angeles

The Port of Los Angeles, known as America’s Port, is the busiest port in the U.S. It was founded in 1907 and is governed by the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners. Located 25 miles south of downtown Los Angeles in the San Pedro community, this massive port covers 7,500 acres of land and water along 43 miles of the California coast.

Its economic impact is substantial. According to the official Port of Los Angeles website, in 2020 the port facilitated $259 billion in trade. It also accounted for 133,000 jobs in Los Angeles and 1.58 million jobs nationwide. The container volume at the Port of Los Angeles has been ranked first in the U.S. since 2000 and is currently 17th in the world.

Civil engineers lead the environmental management and sustainable business practices involved in port design and management. In 2006, the San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP) was adopted by both the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The plan has been extremely successful in reducing harmful emissions.

Port of Long Beach

The Port of Long Beach was founded on June 24, 1911, and now spans 8,120 acres of land and sea including wharves, cargo terminals, roadways, and shipping channels. By 1926, more than 1 million tons of cargo were handled in Long Beach by 821 vessels. Today, the Port of Long Beach is the second busiest port in the U.S., with approximately $200 billion in trade moving through annually, according to the Port of Long Beach official website.

The port facilitates a wide variety of cargo, including toys, clothing, consumer electronics, automobiles, petroleum, cement, lumber, steel, and more. In Long Beach, 1 in 5 jobs is port-related, representing around 50,000 jobs in the city.

The Green Port Gateway project aimed to improve the efficiency and capacity of the rail system for the Port of Long Beach. The goal was to minimize derailments, optimize rail traffic flow, and reduce air pollution by placing fewer trucks on the road. The project was completed in 2015.

In 2021, this second busiest U.S. port saw the second most active year of its history, servicing approximately 8.1 million container units, all while maintaining its standing as an excellent industry, environmental, and community advocate.

The Port of New York and New Jersey

The third busiest port in the U.S. is the Port of New York and New Jersey. Due to heavy maritime activity in the Hudson and East rivers in the early 1900s, the two states agreed in 1921 to create the Port Authority of New York to develop and modernize this port.

After the Great Depression and two World Wars, Port Newark — the Port Authority’s main terminal — was in dire need of repair. By 1951, a total of 21 berths and a 35-foot-deep channel were able to accommodate large ships. The volume of traffic at the port continues to increase year after year. In 2019, over 4.2 million cargo containers were handled, carrying cargo valued at more than $200 billion, according to the official trade report from the Port of New York and New Jersey website.

Several port programs help reduce emissions and pollution while preserving natural habitats. One such program, the Clean Air Strategy, reduces emissions by replacing old trucks, installing shore power capability, and updating cargo handling equipment. Other programs — such as the Hudson-Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan (CRP), the New York State Open Conservation Plan, and the Stormwater Management Program — work to maintain and restore the ecosystem and wildlife in New York and New Jersey Harbor.

As these ports on both the nation’s East Coast and West Coast continue to handle increased traffic and cargo, the duties of civil engineers will become more complex, impacting economic and trade vitality in new and different ways. Innovative efficiencies and environmental awareness will be needed for civil engineers to excel in their expanding roles.

Accelerate Your Future in Engineering and Tech

The significance of ports in the United States is only going to expand as global trade continues to widen. As central locations for trade, there will be no shortage of demand at ports for talented professionals who can create and improve port performance and efficiency.

With courses including Construction Planning and Scheduling, Advanced Steel Design, and Advanced Water Treatment, Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program is structured to teach engineers how to create a better future through responsible and sustainable design.

Learn how to effectively supervise, plan, design, construct and operate the infrastructures essential to connect the modern world, from the busiest ports in the U.S. to whatever engineering area may suit your calling.

Recommended Readings

Civil Engineering Failures

5 Advancements in Transportation Technology

Essential Civil Engineering Skills


A Clean Air Strategy

Hudson River Foundation, Hudson-Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan

New York State, 2016 Open Space Conservation Plan

NYC Environmental Protection, NYC Stormwater Management Program

Office of the United States Trade Representative, Countries & Regions

Port of Los Angeles, About

Port of Los Angeles, Facts and Figures

Port of Los Angeles, San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP)

Port of Long Beach, History Timeline

Port of Long Beach, Port Facts & FAQs

Port of Long Beach, Port Info

Port of New York and New Jersey, Containers

Port of New York and New Jersey, Facts and Figures

Port of New York and New Jersey, History

San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan