Why we should care about Baltimore

(And why the Auto Industry Already does)

An image depicting a bridge falling apart and, with it, a large number of cars falling along with it.

At this point, everyone in the world of supply chains has grown familiar with the tragedy that struck Baltimore. The MV Dali—a container ship operated by Maersk—crashed against the Francis Scott Key Bridge earlier this month. The cause of the accident remains unclear, although most evidence suggests that the MV Dali suffered from a meaningful power malfunction. Soon after, the vessel was unable to stir away from the bridge. Upon impact, the structure collapsed to its own weight, blocking all access to the port and causing the death of six construction workers.

The events themselves are tragic, and only now, are we facing the first signs of its impact in supply chains. Many of which might be underplayed by an initial misjudgment—more so when it comes to the auto sector.

You see, although Baltimore might not be the immediate pick for an automotive powerhouse, the port is one of the most relevant for the industry. Just looking at the imports of the port, we notice that automotives are, by far, the largest trade category, with 63.6% of the port’s total trade. In total, the port imported over 1.7 million tonnes of cars in 2023 alone, with an estimated value of $24.6 bn. In contrast, the second largest export category for Baltimore, Construction equipment, brought in little over $6.2 bn or nearly four times less than the value of Baltimore’s auto imports.

Port of Baltimore: Main Imports by Monetary Value (2023)

A pie chart showing the share of main imports to the port of Baltimore by monetary value in 2023

To many, it might come as a surprise that Baltimore could be such a meaningful port. Afterall, it is only the 14th largest in the US in terms of containers handled, and 19th largest in North America. In fact, looking at the containers that arrive at the port, we notice that Baltimore handled just 9.6% of the containers handled in the Port of LA during 2023. 

Top 30 Ports in North America by TEUs (2023)

A bar graph showing the 30 largest ports in North America by TEUs handled in 2023

But while the Port of Baltimore only handles roughly 1.3% of all containers in the US, that same number jumps to 8.3% when looking at East Coast Ports alone. That is, close to one in ten shipments that enter the US East Coast do so through Baltimore.

Again, what’s most important is not that Baltimore matters to some countries. It is, in fact, just how much it matters to the US. In 2023, Baltimore accounted for roughly 16% of all auto imports for the US, making it the largest port for the automotive industry. It is closely followed by the port of Brunswick, Georgia, which represents some 12% of the total. With a single incident—with the collapse of the Francis Scott Bridge—the entire automotive industry lost a crucial entry to the US market.

Top Automotive Ports in the US (2023)

A map of the United States showing the main ports for auto imports in the country.

Baltimore has truly become a global hub for imports from a broad array of countries. The majority of car imports to the port came from Germany (24%), and Japan (19%). Mexico—arguably the largest partner to the US when it comes to the auto industry—comes in third place at 18%. The mere presence of Germany and Japan so high in the list does suggest the port itself serves as an entry way for foreign brands. In fact, looking at the above distribution, we can estimate that 11.9% of all Japanese vehicles that enter the US do so through Baltimore.

Port of Baltimore: Vehicle Imports by Country of Origin

A piec chart showing the origin country for auto imports in the port of Baltimore.

Now, let’s think of this in terms of its potential impact to supply chains. With the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, dozens of vessels had to be rerouted to neighboring docks. Just from a capacity standpoint, it is difficult to ask a port to handle a sudden upsurge of 8.3% in capacity. Suddenly, the Port of New York and New Jersey, as well as the Port of Virginia had to take on that additional traffic, increasing labor and operational costs. Although estimates are still not clear, it is certain that the incidents at Baltimore are likely to have a toll on logistics costs for the US East Coast.
Now, Baltimore’s location does make it fairly easy to divert traffic to other major automotive ports, likely mitigating the overall impact of this supply chain disruption. However, the fact remains that the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge was likely to bring the entire automotive industry into a brief moment of chaos.

Above all, the incident at Baltimore should serve as a testimony that total size is not a proper indicator of importance. Although the port itself only accounts for 1.3% of all TEU traffic to the US, it represents 8.3% of all East Coast traffic. Furthermore, when we look at the automotive sector alone, it becomes the single biggest port in the country, accounting for 16% of all vehicle imports. Thus, through the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, an entire industry was put at risk as well as a meaningful portion of East Coast trade.