Container choreography and pop-up ports: flows, overflows, and pauses in the US 2021 supply chain crisis

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Shipping containers have reshaped the global economy because of their easy transfer between ship, rail, and truck as compared to loading and unloading one parcel at a time. But the journey of an individual container is still a highly choreographed sequence of flows and pauses. A disruption in that sequence can cause overflows and shortages as containers and the goods they carry spend too much time in one place and not another. The supply chain crisis that hit the U.S. in late 2021 through 2022 had a number of interrelated causes, but at its heart it was a series of small, temporary blockages. The “pop-up ports” that were developed to alleviate these blockages have become part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s official recommendations for supply chain crises. In the process, the spatial extent of the port itself has overflowed the waterfront and now extends hundreds of miles inland, incorporating complex and novel governance structures. In this paper, I draw on two related concepts from the mobilities literature—choreography and pausing—to understand the implications of pop-up ports for how we think about the logistical city.