Interventions towards the Logistical City

Katie Hepworth October 24, 2012

Katie Hepworth

292… 293… 294… 290… 291… 295…


A list of numbers flashes up above the entrance to the DP World container terminal on Simblist Rd, Port Botany, signalling to the truck drivers parked along the edge of the road when they can enter the terminal to pick up or drop off a container.


292… 293… 294… 290… 291… 295…


Each of these numbers refers to a ‘vehicle booking slot’, an agreed period within which a truck must enter the port and be serviced by the stevedore. Booked online days in advance, each of these slots refers to both an entry window into the terminal and a container to be picked up for import or dropped off for export. As the truck enters the port in compliance with their slot, RFID chips on their chassis trigger a variety of digital interactions – both automated and manual – that are designed to ensure that the right container is loaded onto the right truck in the shortest period of time with the least crane movements necessary.

Truck entry to Patrick’s Port Botany has been governed through the release of vehicle booking slots since 1999. In 2011, the VBS became the site of intervention by the ports authority into the operations of its leaseholders, DP World and Patrick Stevedores; the slot became the means of reorganising the operators relationships with various terminal users. In accordance with state government legislation set out in the Port Botany Landside Improvement Strategy, each of these slots now carries with it a series of requirements that specify how late or how early a truck can arrive without being fined. It specifies, furthermore, the amount of time that can be taken to go from gate-in to gate-out without similar fines being levelled at the stevedore. Thus truck movements through the space of the port are governed by the temporalities that the slot is made to carry: their position in the terminal is imagined relative to the window legislated for that slot, with a redirection in landside processes - changing the order of trucks serviced from a sequence that more efficiently moves multiple containers onto multiple trucks to one that ensures that a particular truck leaves the port on time – triggered by the impending end of the window, so as to avoid government determined fines being levelled at the stevedore.


In other words, the vehicle booking slot works to calibrate the switching in scale and mode of commodity flows; it is a point in time in the transition between maritime and land-based flows, as containers previously moved from ships to the wharf and then to the yard, are loaded onto trucks for urban distribution. The transition from sea to land or land to sea is not immediate; the movement from quayside to landside can take a few hours or days, depending on multiple processes and decisions enacted relative to each container. The container may be slowed or halted through the border’s extension in space and time in the dispersed operations of quarantine and customs; carriers may decide to exploit the wharf as free storage prior to distribution, maximising the time containers are left in the terminal before fines are levied by the operator; alternatively, containers may remain on the wharf due to the mismatch between the times of operation of the port and the operating hours of individual warehouses.


The slowing or halting of the container is a glitch in the city or port understood as an integrated logistics system. Each glitch, furthermore, introduces other frictions into the system, further testing its resilience and fault tolerance. The glitch of mismatched times becomes visible in the extra booking slots that are made available on a Monday and Tuesday, and in the trucks that queue at the gate to service these slots, causing congestion in the streets surrounding the port. These trucks arrive to pick up containers that had built up on the wharf over the weekend, delivering them to warehouses that remain closed while ships are unloaded 24/7. Other frictions become visible in the queues of trucks that clog up Parramatta Rd, the main arterial link between the Port Botany and the western suburbs where the majority of distribution centres and warehouses are located.


These frictions and glitches emerge as the organisation of the city as logistics system encounters the latencies and limits of the infrastructure and urban configurations of the industrial city. The ideal model of the city as logistics system is embodied in the urban plans and the branding for urban configurations such as Dubai Logistics World. This is the city as ‘enclave’ or ‘zone of exemption’, where – as Easterling argues - local jurisdictions are erased, replaced by the rules of the special economic zone. Built from scratch as a logistics city, Dubai Logistics World eschews the functions of the industrial city: manufacture and production. It is instead dedicated to the facilitation and synchronisation commodity flows, enabling the increasing fragmentation and extension of supply chains that start and end elsewhere.


Cowen argues that models and representations of space are ‘vital to the production of lived space’; the way that space is imagined affects its management and regulation. And so, government and industry intervention into the operation of Port Botany and the surrounding city – to make its spaces more efficient, more productive, and with ever increasing throughput in line with ‘world’s best practice’ - could be said to carry with it traces of those other, ideal, logistical cities. The rhetoric of connectivity, speed, and efficiency that underpins the design – and branding – of those other cities echoes through the interventions into this no-longer industrial city.


The organisation spaces of the ideal logistics city, such as the ‘corridor’, are deployed in the no-longer industrial city to try and optimise its spaces, by bypassing its frictions and bottlenecks. The Enfield intermodal terminal – which should become operational in late 2013 – is one such intervention. Initiated by the state government, it will be operated by the future third terminal operator at Port Botany. In this site, as in other intermodal terminals, some containers already transferred from ships to rail in Port Botany, will be transferred to trucks for distribution throughout the surrounding suburban area, while other containers are directly transferred warehouses adjoining the terminal, and destuffed onsite. In this way, the container terminal, the intermodal terminal and the rail line that connects are meant to operate as an ‘extended gateway’, as spatially separate yet functionally integrated elements of the port.


In optimising the spaces of the city, the extended gateway of the port and the intermodal terminal does not just bypass the spaces of the city. With the 24/7 operations of the intermodal terminal echoing the operations of the port, it also bypasses the temporal rhythms of the existing city, set by warehouses that typically open Monday to Friday (and possibly Saturday), and which close in the evenings and overnight. Furthermore, with automation increasing on the waterfront, it can be supposed that these sites will eventually bypass the bodily rhythms of individual workers, as containers will be moved through the terminal on automated straddle carriers guided by an ‘intelligent’ groundplain, such as those to be installed at Patrick’s Port Botany in 2014.


In each of the moments described above, the 24-7, seamless logistical city encounters the messiness of the already existing, no-longer industrial city. In each of those moments, the interventions are imperfect. The booking slot cannot change the operating hours beyond the port. The ‘extended gateway’ is to be funnelled through existing rail sidings as it arrives at the port; rail sidings that are already at capacity. The site for the intermodal is not quite ideal, still close to the port and not in the midst of the warehouses that it is intended to service, but sited here because the land was still empty; contaminated by past industrial uses, and next to a major rail line, it remained permanently unsuitable for gentrification. However, even if imperfect, the deployment of these geographies of optimisation are not insignificant nor failures; they result in a reimagining of the times and spaces of the city, and constitute new labouring subjects to work them.