Shipping Routes That Define Global Trade — And How Big Data Optimizes Them

Major Shipping Routes in History — and How Data Optimizes Them

By Chris Crutchley on August 12, 2022
These shipping routes have shaped global trade for hundreds of years. How has big data made them more efficient?

Throughout eons of history, humans have been exchanging goods with each other day and night, centuries upon centuries, nonstop all across the globe. 

The Silk Road. The Amber Road. The Royal Road. The Ancient Tea Horse Road. The Spice Route. The Salt Route. The Tin Route. The Trans-Saharan Trade Route. 

Such trade networks have shaped world history as we know it. However, times have changed. New routes have since overtaken old routes — and they’ve done so thanks to many factors including access to big data. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the details of the world’s major shipping routes and how access to real-time data can optimize them. 

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Shipping routes you need to know

Each year, more than 50,000 merchant ships transport over 11 billion tons of goods around the world. That’s more than 2,000 pounds per person per year, year after year after year. It can be difficult to wrap your mind around a large number like that. To get a better sense of things, here’s an interactive map from the UCL Energy Institute to help visualize what this process looks like in real-time. 

With that volume of transport, there’s also serious money on the line. According to the International Chamber of Shipping 14 trillion dollars worth of goods transported by sea accounts for nearly 90% of all world trade. Ocean shipping routes are the lifeline to global commerce. 

So how — and, more importantly, where — do these goods keep flowing? Here are the world’s busiest major shipping routes you need to know: 

Strait of Malacca 

First, there’s the Strait of Malacca. Its name is derived from the trading port that sits at the mouth of the Melaka River on the western peninsula of Malaysia. The reason it is first on this list is that it accounts for 40% of all world trade and is the shortest route between India and China. 

The 500-mile strait connects the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. It’s a key link between major Asian economies such as Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Panama Canal 

Second, there’s the Panama Canal. Completed in 1914, this narrow 40-mile canal goes through the Isthmus of Panama and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, allowing for an average transit time of about 10 hours from end to end. This reduces the voyage between the east and west coasts of the United States by roughly 8,000 nautical miles.  

As a result, in 2020 the Panama Canal generated 2.6 million USD in toll fees from 12,245 transits carrying 256 million tons of goods. If you’re interested in further details regarding the Panama Canal’s ongoing transits, vessel requirements, etc., you can visit its website here for more information.

Suez Canal 

The Suez Canal is another crucial artificial waterway. Since its construction in 1869, the Suez Canal has become one of the world’s major shipping routes since it can significantly reduce shipping times. 

For instance, a ship traveling from Ras Tunara to Rotterdam around the Cape of Good Hope is 11,169 nautical miles. Yet, thanks to the Suez Canal, that same trip is 42% shorter at 6,436 miles saving a significant amount of time. For more examples, visit the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) website here

In other words, the 120-mile canal cuts through the Isthmus of Suez and does three things. First, it connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Second, it essentially divides Africa and Asia. Third, it serves as an effective trade route between Asia and Europe. 

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English Channel 

After that, there’s the English Channel. Simply known as “The Channel,” this 350-mile long shipping route links southern England and northern France. It also connects the southern portion of the North Sea at its narrowest point, the Dover Strait.  

Each day, roughly 400 ships carrying over 300 tonnes travel from east to west, as well as over 100 ferries travel from north to south. That makes The English Channel one of the busiest marine areas in the world. It's estimated that, via the Dover Strait, imports and exports reach a yearly trade valuation of 123 billion USD. As a result, the Port of Dover in England and the Port Calais in France are two of the most important harbors in world trade. 

St. Lawrence Seaway 

Finally, there’s the St. Lawrence Seaway. Completed in 1959, the 2,340-mile deep draft waterway connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, stretching all the way to Lake Superior.

From 1959 to the present day, the St. Lawrence Seaway has transported over two billion tons of cargo worth an estimated 300 billion USD. This has had a considerable impact on both the US and Canada by helping increase the trade of major commodities between the two countries.

Beyond the major shipping routes mentioned, there are other more minor trade routes that still play important role in contributing to world trade. These include:

How big data optimizes trade routes  

Historic trade routes are only one part of the modern shipping equation. How does access to big data bolster these age-old networks? Two big ways: increased efficiency and boosting the potential for automation. Let’s take a look at each.

Stay efficient in real time

Thanks to big data, small changes can have exponential results when it comes to improving efficiency within the shipping industry. 

Data on task orders provide increasingly accurate information regarding updated delivery points and time slots, plus all the details — like weight and dimensions — of goods. Now, it’s easier to integrate data into existing resources to understand the best way to utilize cargo capacity and staff.    

Savvy shipping companies can now reduce data inconsistencies that result in delays such as those that have plagued the Suez Canal over the years. Big data facilitates an optimized system that can more accurately predict the shortest possible route — in turn lowering overall costs and efficiently transporting goods to the individuals and communities that need them. 

Additionally, access to real-time data lays the groundwork for ongoing communication between companies and transportation services. In the event there is a miscommunication or something goes wrong due to unforeseen circumstances, all parties can analyze real-time insights and work together with less lag.

Automation to the rescue

What if you could increase the efficiency of shipping routes in real-time and potentially automate them too? Thanks to accessible big data and the use of artificial intelligence (AI), automation is becoming increasingly widespread in the shipping industry. 

Not only does this save time, money, and headaches it also addresses the current global shortage of merchant sailors. According to a study published by trade associations BIMCO and ICS, demand for certified seafarers is far outpacing the supply. However, autonomous ships could prove to be the solution to this crisis. 

For example, Yara Birkeland, the world’s first crewless, zero emissions cargo ship set sail from Norway in 2021. It’s a clear example of how big data can be harnessed to not only increase efficiency and automation but also help in lowering carbon emissions directly related to the shipping industry. 

Optimize Your Company’s Trade Routes With CBIP   

Global demand for efficient transportation via the world’s major shipping routes isn’t going anywhere — and each year consumer expectations are higher. That means it takes real-time insights from big data to keep customers happy. 

At CBIP, we’re committed to working with you to craft logistics plans that meet the unique needs of your business. We understand the importance of utilizing data and we’re always keeping up with the latest innovations across the industry. With a team of experts keeping up with the latest technology and a network of forward-thinking partners, we’re ready to evolve with you.

Get in touch today to learn how CBIP can help your shipping operation move into the future and leverage big data.

About Author

Chris Crutchley

Chris Crutchley is CBIP’s director of operations and finance. He has over a decade of corporate finance and operational expertise throughout the Asia Pacific.

In logistics, Chris strives to continuously innovate and challenge the industry’s norms in order to offer clients world-class service that emphasizes clear communication.


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