Port of Houston: Everything you Need to Know

Image by Carol M. Highsmith – Library of Congress

The Port of Houston is one of the busiest ports in the US and, by extension, in the entire American continent. In 2023, it ranked as the seventh largest in North America and sixth largest in the country. In fact, the port is so large that, in 2022, it accounted for close to 20% of the GDP in the state of Texas. It is then no exaggeration to say it is one of the most important entryways for maritime commerce in the US.

As such, we at Auba put together a guide on the most important statistics about the port of Houston and its true impact to the US economy.

Where is the Port of Houston Located?

The Port of Houston is located some 10 miles away from the Houston downtown area. Currently, the port consists of eight public terminals connecting the city to the Gulf of Mexico. It is, at the time of writing, the most important port in the Gulf both in terms of TEUs handled and tons of cargo, signifying a key entry point for commerce into Houston and the US as a whole. The different terminals handled by the Houston Port Authority are all located along a 52-mile long channel through which all vessels must enter in order to deliver cargo—even though not all vessels might need to travel the channel in its entirety.

How Many TEUs Can the Port of Houston Handle?

The specific number of TEUs—a common metric for containers—handled by the Port of Houston varies year to year. In our most recent report (The State of North American Ports by Auba), we estimated that the port handled over 2.9 million TEUs—although, this number was a statistical estimate given a lack of official reporting from the Houston Port Authority at the time.

Port of Houston: Total TEUs Handled Over Time

A bar graph showing the number of TEUs handled per year at the port of Houston between 2018 and 2023

(Data from Auba)

Across time, the port exhibits a positive trend in the number of TEUs handled, signaling a growing interest in Houston as a crucial entry point to the US market. In total, between 2018 and 2022, the port experienced a growth rate of 32.65% in the number of TEUs it was able to process. 

How Many Tons of Cargo Can the Port of Houston Handle?

Similarly to the number of TEUs, the total tons of cargo handled by the port of Houston will vary year to year. However, it is worth noting that this metric reflects a different kind of trade than TEUs. When speaking of TEUs, we are focusing just on containerized trade—namely, the merchandise being transported in a multimodal shipping container. Other forms of cargo such as fuels or chemicals that are not often carried in containers, are left out of such a metric. As such, tons of cargo tends to look at the remainder of trade not brought into the Port of Houston by conventional containers.

In Aubas’ The State of Ports in North America, we found that the port of Houston handled over 232 million tons of cargo as of 2022. This, however, represents a downward trend when compared to previous years. In fact, we found that, between 2018 and 2022, the total tons of cargo handled by the port fell by a rate of 4.52%.

Port of Houston: Total Tons of Cargo Handled Over Time

A bar graph showing the millions of tons of cargo handled per year at the port of Houston between 2018 and 2023

(Data from Auba)

What does the Port of Houston export?

When looking at containerized trade alone, we noticed that the Port of Houston does skew towards certain categories. In 2023, nearly 45% of all products exported from the port fell into the “resins and plastics category,” which was to be expected since Houston handles roughly 22% of all US oil exports. Plastics are followed by chemicals (17.2%) and, in a distant third, automotive exports (8.5%)

Houston Exports by Category

A pie chart showing the main export categories in the Port of Houston for the year 2023

(Data from Port of Houston)

How Efficient is the Port of Houston?

Efficiency is difficult to measure when it comes to ports the likes of Houston. A good approximation, albeit centered around containers, is to look at the number of containers that arrive empty at a port and compare them to the number of containers that arrive full of cargo. With this logic in mind, efficiency can be defined as the best use of containers ensuring they rarely arrive empty to the port. Then, a highly efficient port is one where shipping companies can easily replace cargo inside of their containers without having to transport empty containers elsewhere.

To measure this value, we designed a metric called the “inefficiency rate” which is just the ratio of empty over full containers handled by a port in a year. A score close or above to 1 in this metric implies that the port is inefficient, handling the same or greater number of empty TEUs as compared to full TEUs. A score closer to cero, on the other hand, represents a more efficient port where empty containers represent a minor occurrence.

In the case of Houston, we found a low degree of inefficiency with a score of just 0.25. However, we did notice a slight increase from previous years when the inefficiency ratio was at or below 0.20.

Efficiency Ratio for the Port

A line graph showing the efficiency rate at the port of Houston, defined as the ratio between the number of empty and full TEUs handled in a year.

(Data from Auba)

How does the Port of Houston Compare to Other Ports? 

The port of Houston remains one of the most important ports in the US and the Americas, handling 4.7% of all containers and 14.64% of all tons of cargo in North America. As a result, we found that the port is the seventh largest in the region and sixth largest in the US, comparable to the ports of Manzanillo in Mexico and the Port of Virginia. However, it is worth noting that Houston is far from being one of the three largest ports in North America and its total TEUs in 2023 only accounted for about 34% of those handled by the port of Los Angeles.

Top 30 Ports in North America by TEUs Handled (2023)

A bar chart showing the largest ports in North America by number of TEUs handled in 2023

(Data from Auba)