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Amazing Aerial Photos Show The Enormous Cargo Traffic Jam At The Nation’s Biggest Port

A labor dispute at the Port of Los Angeles has created a traffic mess of epic proportions.

Some of the worst traffic in L.A. right now isn’t on the 405. At the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach, the country’s largest port complex, cargo ships and semis have been backed up for months during a labor dispute.

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On a flight home to Los Angeles on Monday, aerial photographer Mike Kelley saw the ships waiting at port and was mesmerized. “We flew over the port when we came into LAX, and I looked at it and thought, that’s amazing,” he says. “As soon as I landed, I called my pilot and asked how soon he could go up.”

Three hours later, Kelley was thousands of feet above the port, strapped into a window washer-like harness as he dangled out the door of the helicopter with his camera.

Michael Kelley

“I wasn’t quite prepared for the size and scale of everything,” he says. “When you’re over that much water it’s a little bit mind-blowing. The size of those ships is absolutely dwarfed by the ocean–and some of the ships are 2,000 feet long.”

Kelley, who is working on a book of aerial photos of the city, had been over the port before, but had never seen so much traffic. “There are normally three or four ships or so, and they’re all inside the breakwater,” he says. “There were around 30 or 40 ships outside the breakwater, which is crazy. We had to fly for 20 minutes to get over all of them.”

Michael Kelley

Traffic at the ports was partially shut down over the weekend, part of an months-long series of delays over the last nine months as West Coast dockworkers try to negotiate new contracts with the Pacific Maritime Association, which controls 29 ports in California, Washington, and Oregon. Talks begin again today, though the companies are refusing to hire dock workers, who have been working without a contract since July, this long weekend so as to avoid paying them overtime wages. If the ports shut down completely–as happened in 2002, for 10 days–it could cost the economy an estimated $2.5 billion a day. If an agreement is reached, it will still take months to get port traffic back to normal speed.

For Kelley, the view at the port is a reminder of how much our lives rely on container shipping. “If 30 ships are waiting, that’s probably hundreds of thousands of containers,” he says. “The effect on the economy is crazy. The interconnectedness of it all is what’s most fascinating to me.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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