What do port activities contribute?
The Port of Metro Vancouver has produced a press release on a report it commissioned from InterVistas to show how important it is. I thought one thing that might help is to try and put some of these claims into perspective. For example the number of jobs in the port. My source of data is Metro Vancouver‘s Key Facts.
"Port Metro Vancouver is one of the most visible contributors to the economy of Metro Vancouver and accounts for 45,000 direct jobs in this region alone, with 3,300 jobs in Delta, 5,600 jobs on the North Shore and more than 20,000 jobs in Vancouver,"
There were over 1.2 million jobs in the region in 2007. So the port is not that significant a source of employment, less than 4% of all jobs
So who are the big employers? Well you have to look at the sort of jobs – for example there are 233,800 jobs in the financial sector (Business, finance and administrative occupations) or 312,900 jobs in the sales and service sector. There are 54,700 teachers and professors, and 42,200 transport and realted equipment operators – some of whom will work for the port or port related businesses.
The Vancouver region does not have many very large employers, and even the Port itself does not employ lots of people: most of them work for a wide variety of companies active in the Port. The really big employers are governments 44,800, schools 46,00 and the really big employer healthcare 117,200.
Now I am not saying that the Port is not a significant feature in our landscape, and it is one of the main reasons that the city was established in the first place. Obviously geography plays a big part in all of this, and the natural deep water berths in the Burrard Inlet were for a long time a significant factor. But it is noticeable that our market does not value port operations very highly. The great competition for waterfront property has steadily pushed port operations out of the centre of the city and to the periphery. Just as it has in other major port cities. Very little commercial traffic now moves up the Thames and though the City of London, for example. In Vancouver, Coal Harbour is now ringed with expensive condo towers, not cranes and loading ramps. Port related activities such as logistics and distribution have also gone to cheaper land in the suburbs. Which is one of the reasons that so much truck traffic has been generated: activities which used to take place inside the Port now go to terminals in the suburbs. And all the processing and manufacturing that used to be around the port has gone elsewhere too. Only one oil refinery remains active, for instance. A lot of the lumber and related industry has closed too.
One of the things that planning is supposed to do is to assess these sorts of effects, since the market transactions in land do not reflect the “externalities” of these kind of location decisions. The problem here is that the region has no land use powers of any kind. The decisions that have lead to the dispersal of port activities were made without much consideration other than local impacts. And, in general, the City of Vancouver has been more than happy to see the ugly, messy business of shipping moved away from its waterfront. It has also largely abandoned any strategy for keeping a supply of industrial land. This process has not been such a boon to the places it has relocated to, as it has spread out – often on land “reclaimed” from wetlands and shoreline. The huge freightyards the CP railway has constructed out at Coquitlam is now a significant barrier to movement – and a massive bridge is being built at public expense to overcome that.
The impact of port relocation and expansion on the natural environment has been little short of catastrophic. But of course the Port does not value that. It does not show up in its accounting of GDP, jobs and “economic output”. Seals and sandpipers adding no value at all to anyone’s bottom line.
If you really want to look at the port it might be better to consider what the net value added of port activities might be. Especially for the traffic that could be routed through more efficient locations, such as Prince Rupert. For instance, we now ship out lots of raw logs. Many people wonder why it “made sense” to get rid of lots of forest products jobs in BC. We could make things out of timber here once upon a time, and the shipping of finished products is actually more efficient in weight losing industries. Pack flat furniture in containers is a lot cheaper to ship than raw logs simply because they take up less space. Of course up until now, the main reason has been cheap labour abroad and cheap oil to get it there – and back again. Now that China does not want our recycled plastics and cardboard, we are going to have to get a bit more creative. The 100 mile diet is just the start. We will have to consider very carefully the use that we put our scarce land to. Growing food certainly, but also making things as opposed to storing them and packing and unpacking boxes. Which is about all the does take place in our port.
Oh, there is one exception, which is curious. At Fraser Wharves, they do not just drive cars out of ships and onto trains. They also rip out the interiors, and replace things like seats and stereos, and stick on a badge to make it a “Special Edition”. In terms of its impact on price of the finished product it was, once, significant and highly profitable for the dealers. And of course that shows up in any kind of “value added” analysis. The price that is. Not whether or not this is a useful activity to society in general. Which reminds me: 32,000 jobs are in the arts, entertainment and recreation and I happen to value them a bit higher than fork lift truck driving in terms of their contribution to human happiness. Though I expect most of them make much less money than flt drivers.