8 votes

Restrictive zoning laws worsened the supply chain crisis

5 comments

  1. MetArtScroll
    Link
    This is yet another, and, as I explain below, extreme example of how NIMBYism can exacerbate nearly any problem the society and the economy are dealing with. When I read that passage, I knew the...

    This is yet another, and, as I explain below, extreme example of how NIMBYism can exacerbate nearly any problem the society and the economy are dealing with.

    Until officials in Long Beach, California, issued an emergency order this weekend to temporarily relax those rules, it was illegal for trucking companies to store more than two shipping containers on top of one another in their yards. That's contributed to a massive bottleneck at the terminal yards of trucking companies serving both the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach—a bottleneck that's being felt in supply chain shortages across the whole country.

    When I read that passage, I knew the most probable reason. Of course, there is nothing related to safety. A few passages below:

    There doesn't seem to be any safety-based reason for such a policy, as shipping containers are routinely stacked higher at other ports and while being carried across the open sea. Long Beach's prohibition on stacking more than two-high is "an aesthetic measure intended to preserve visual sightlines in the neighborhood," according to The Maritime Executive, a trade publication.

    (The restriction was temporarily loosened to at most four containers atop each other.)

    So this is yet another example of a NIMBY legal capture. Unlike many other cases of NIMBYism (e.g., the infamous hysteric laundromat in San Francisco), the negative impact of this individual case is huge in magnitude.

    Namely, the operation of the biggest port complex (Los Angeles plus Long Beach) on the Pacific Coast is severely restricted—regardless of the current supply chain crisis in the United States—so that a few dozen NIMBYs have “esthetically pleasing sightlines.”

    6 votes
  2. [3]
    skybrian
    Link
    The author of the Reason article uses this story to blame zoning regulations. But the idea that restrictive zoning is a significant issue for container throughput in Long Beach doesn’t seem proven...

    The author of the Reason article uses this story to blame zoning regulations. But the idea that restrictive zoning is a significant issue for container throughput in Long Beach doesn’t seem proven to me. The story seems a bit too neat?

    Although it makes sense that relaxing this regulation should help temporarily, I haven’t seen evidence yet that it actually did. There should be data somewhere about container throughput at Long Beach, but I haven’t seen it in any articles covering this story. A graph showing that containers unloaded per day increased after changing this regulation would be nice. We have better data for pandemic stuff.

    I also wonder why the port used up all nearby storage space in the first place and why it won’t happen again. Was there actually too little space before, or is something wrong with the algorithm that will cause it to fill up all nearby space again?

    In networking gear there is a similar problem called bufferbloat. Adding a bigger outgoing buffer before a slow network connection often results in increased latency, not throughput. The problem should ideally be fixed with better flow control. Compare with the Toyota Production System where the idea is to reduce work in progress. Another example is in air traffic control. If there are too many planes waiting to land above a congested airport, they will delay any new flights going there.

    These are just suggestive analogies and I don’t know what’s really going on. But it seems like container ships shouldn’t unload until there is space for their containers? The buffer should never completely fill. Is there any flow control in this system?

    I’ve read that they are going to start charging storage fees near Long Beach, which would be an incentive against bufferbloat. Maybe that will help too?

    But I don’t think we understand the problem very well. There are many articles, but reporting I’ve seen isn’t in-depth enough to understand it. We just get bits and pieces of the problem.

    5 votes
    1. [2]
      MetArtScroll
      Link Parent
      As far as I understand, under the normal conditions the operation has been smooth even with those restrictions. However, those restrictions do not make any sense in the first place: the area...

      As far as I understand, under the normal conditions the operation has been smooth even with those restrictions. However, those restrictions do not make any sense in the first place: the area wasted to house piles of no more than two containers could be used more efficiently (e.g., for more housing) if even a mild four-container restriction were used (and, from some videos I watched, the normal pile is at least six containers).

      But it seems like container ships shouldn’t unload until there is space for their containers? The buffer should never completely fill.

      You are absolutely right. However, in this case the buffer size was artificially limited by a bunch of NIMBYs.

      2 votes
      1. skybrian
        Link Parent
        I'm not sure that natural versus artificial limits are the best way to think about it? One way or another, there is always a limit. There is a system with a certain capacity. Either that's...

        I'm not sure that natural versus artificial limits are the best way to think about it? One way or another, there is always a limit. There is a system with a certain capacity. Either that's sufficient or it isn't.

        It does look like it wasn't enough, but that's due to bottlenecks elsewhere. There might have been enough buffer space already, if there were also good flow control. We don't know what the limit should be in a well-designed system.

        Relaxed regulations might not have resulted in more buffer space. Suppose they had allowed four-high container stacks all along. Maybe there would be half as much land devoted to container storage, because land is expensive? The amount of space available depends on how much the land owners thought they needed.

        So maybe we could think of the zoning restriction as inadvertently reserving more capacity than the owners wanted? Sometimes artificial restrictions turn out to be useful. (Ideally it would have been deployed sooner.)

        That's a lot of what-ifs and it might all turn out to be wrong. I'm just explaining my intuition that there might be more to this problem.

        2 votes
  3. skybrian
    Link
    The real story behind a tech founder's 'tweetstorm that saves Christmas'. (LA Times, republished on Yahoo.) This gives us a little more info. But I’ve also read somewhere that people in the US who...

    The real story behind a tech founder's 'tweetstorm that saves Christmas'. (LA Times, republished on Yahoo.)

    The chief executive of the Harbor Trucking Assn., which represents the trucking companies dealing with these issues every day, says that any little bit helps, but the measure doesn't change all that much. For one thing, allowing the stacks to climb higher doesn't guarantee they'll do so.

    “I applaud Mayor Garcia for taking some leadership in all this, but the challenge is procuring the equipment to stack that high,” Matt Schrap said. Most yards don’t have the top loaders necessary, let alone the skilled operator and space to safely and efficiently stack containers.

    The real issue, Schrap says, is just that the shipping companies won’t take their empty containers back: “The ocean carriers need to come sweep out the empties.” Adding insult to injury, the ocean carriers bill truckers a late fee every day for unreturned empty containers, Schrap said, even if they won’t accept them at the port. “It makes you want to pick up your laptop and Frisbee it out into the backyard,” Schrap said. “That’s the frustration running through our veins.”

    This gives us a little more info.

    But I’ve also read somewhere that people in the US who want to ship stuff to Asia aren’t getting the containers they need. I wonder why not, if there are plenty of empties?

    4 votes