Interstate 580 has a secret

It’s one of those things I never noticed until someone pointed it out, and now it’s all I see. Every time I merge onto Interstate 580, where I used to only see the cars, now I see the absence of trucks. The big ones. Large trucks are forbidden on a nine-mile stretch of 580 near my apartment, and at first I was happy to hear it.

Not far down the road is the Port of Oakland. The first major ship port on the US west coast, by the late 1960’s it was the 2nd largest in the world, and (even with the limitations of the San Francisco Bay on modern mega-ships) it is still the fifth busiest container port in the country. Transoceanic behemoths (some longer than SF’s highest skyscraper is tall) unload between 14,000 and 19,200 containers each, and last year we set a new record, importing 97,000 containers and exporting another 94,000 (what can I say, California has good produce). Some of them go onto trains, but most roll into the asphalt circulatory system of freeways that spread across the continent. But not this one stretch of 580 that runs right to the port. Why not?

Port of Oakland

There are just 9 freeway segments in the US that forbid large trucks. 7 of those are due to structural constraints, and 1 is where Eisenhower wanted to keep trucks away from the Lincoln Memorial. My stretch of busy interstate is the only one in the country whose truck exclusion was implemented to protect residents from the noise, risk, and (most importantly) pollution of shipping. (Despite the fact that this kind of ban has since been ruled illegal.) How did that happen?

For those who are not familiar with Oakland, here’s a quick demographic primer. The Oakland hills are extremely wealthy, the foothills are upper middle class, and the flatlands are the working class expanses that come to mind when you hear the word Oakland. After passing my place, I-580 hugs the hills. All the traffic that would otherwise pass along it is rerouted via Interstate 880. Guess where 880 runs. Yup, right through the flatlands.

The lower gray line is 880, the one above it is 580.

Since 1951, when Oakland was firmly in the hands of a blazingly racist white ruling elite, we have diverted all of the air pollution of trucking away from the wealthy neighborhoods and into the poorer. Nearly all of these trucks are diesel, which create tiny particles that penetrate deep into the lungs and even into the bloodstream, causing heart attacks, lung cancer, COPD, and other respiratory maladies. (Which is why the EU is banning it altogether.) The developing bodies of children are particularly vulnerable, and studies show that kids growing up near freeways often have under-developed lungs and much higher asthma rates, and the neighborhoods along 880 have the highest rates of asthma hospitalization in Alameda County. Relative to communities along 580, the air in the lower income neighborhoods along 880 have 60% more nitrogen, 80% higher black carbon, and double the nitric oxide.

Thankfully, California is no longer entirely in the grip of that cadre, and my forward-looking state announced a rule last year requiring truck manufacturers to transition to electric, so that every new truck sold by 2045 will be zero emission. But in the meantime, though I don’t look forward to breathing that crap, nor hearing the big engines from my bed at night, we need to remove this example of structural racism. It’s past time we started doing better.