The optimal shape of a container terminal is a rectangle that allows sufficient berthing space and a corresponding yard footprint. However, due to physical and site constraints, such an ideal footprint is rarely found, particularly in older terminals. The outcome is a variety of container terminal footprints that are relatively rectangular if the site allows, but each terminal has faced specific constraints in its development. The following footprint development strategies are noted:
- Reconversion. A container terminal can be created by reconverting existing port facilities that have been abandoned or are seen as less profitable. This tends to be a common and low-cost option for existing ports, but the challenge is an effective reconversion. For instance, the Port Elizabeth complex (New York) is among the oldest container terminal facilities and began operation in the 1960s. The terminals were built over reconverted break-bulk and warehousing facilities that were gradually torn down as container traffic grew. For this complex, the port did not expand its total footprint but reconverted towards containerization by removing marginalized port activities. In the 1990s, an on-dock rail facility was added between the APM and Maher terminals, which reduced the yard footprint but allowed better hinterland access. The case of Montreal underlines unique reconversion challenges as the container terminal facilities were forced to expand laterally due to the limited availability of adjacent real estate. This led to terminal footprints that were narrow and elongated.
- Adaptation. A new terminal footprint can be adapted to mitigate the physical, technical, or real estate limitations of a site, leading to unique footprints. In the late 1980s and 1990s, two major container terminals were added to the port of Antwerp at a downstream location of the Scheldt River (Europa Terminal and Noordzee Terminal). These facilities were constrained by the available real estate footprint and the inability to expand into the Scheldt River through land reclamation. In the early 2000s, the port of Shanghai was expanding rapidly with new facilities downstream along the Yangtze River. For the Mingdong complex, shallow depths along the river banks and siltation made dredging costs prohibitive. To the container yard facilities were added a series of jetties and piers separating the berth areas to the yards, allowing use of the complex as a container port. The drawbacks of this adaptive footprint are longer pier-to-yard movements.
- Land reclamation. The construction of new terminal facilities through the creation of an entirely new footprint, which allows for mitigating technical limitations such as depth and the lack of real estate. These facilities tend to be rectangular and closer to optimal design but require substantial engineering and capital investments. They are common on mega port development projects where a suitable and available land footprint does not exist. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Singapore and Busan engaged in massive land reclamation projects to expand their transshipment facilities in new areas. The Pasir Panjang (Singapore) and Newport (Busan) terminals were designed to mainly serve the function of transshipment, implying that they are more rectangularly shaped, which allows for more berth space as containers tend to spend less time in the yard.