Port regionalization: improving port competitiveness by reaching beyond the port perimeter


Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Hofstra University, New York, USA, & Dr. Theo Notteboom, President of ITMMA, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium



Port system development dynamics in the containerization era

Since the mid-19th century and up to the diffusion of containerization as a dominant form of freight distribution in the 1980s, the development of a port system evolved from an initial pattern of scattered, poorly connected ports along a coastline to a main network consisting of corridors between gateway ports and major hinterland centers (see phases 1 to 4 on Figure 1).

Containerization revolutionized maritime shipping and port terminal operations and supported the substantial growth in international transoceanic trade over the last decades. While traditionally most ports had a fairly clear and distinctive hinterland, containerization initiated a trend towards large overlapping or contestable hinterland regions. The competitive landscape became even more complex by the setting of large container transshipment facilities in locations with a weak hinterland. From the late 1980s, the integration of such transshipment hubs led to a new paradigm in port evolution. Transshipment hubs tend to have greater depth in view of accommodating modern containership drafts, placing them at a technical advantage and inciting the setting of hub-feeder services and interlining/relay configurations between mainline vessels (see phase 5). As intermediary locations, they offered a compromise between economies of scale in vessels and terminals, and the need to maximize connectivity in maritime networks.

Enter the hinterland regionalization paradigm

In the 1990s the growth in container traffic reached a level in several large port facilities where a more efficient form of hinterland transportation needed to be organized. It involved the incorporation of inland freight distribution centers and terminals as active nodes in shaping load center development (phase 6). This port regionalization phase is characterized by the joint and coordinated development of a specific load center and multimodal logistics platforms in the hinterland, ultimately leading to the formation of a regional load center network which, depending on regional characteristics, is supported by two types on inland infrastructures:

Inland waterway ports

These ports are either standard inland maritime or barge ports that are being integrated to hinterland services of coastal ports through shuttle services by barges or smaller coastal ships. This is particularly the case along the Rhine and in the Low Countries, where inland barge ports acts as feeders for large ports in the Rhine-Scheldt Delta such as Rotterdam and Antwerp.

Inland terminals

This is a rather more recent concept where a direct inland connection, particularly through rail, is established between an inland terminal and the port. It takes advantage of intermodal transportation and the improvements in the transshipment efficiency of port terminals. North America has seen the extensive development of inland terminals and their associated logistics zones.


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