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Learn to Merge: Northern California Freeways & Culture

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A look from the Heavens at Northern California's freeways and the Bay beyond them.
A look from the Heavens at Northern California's freeways and the Bay beyond them.  (Amir Aziz)

View the full episode transcript.

Last year I drove over 33,000 miles all around Northern California, constantly pursuing a deeper understanding of this region’s culture. And then one day, while sitting in traffic, it hit me: you can tell a lot about our culture by simply looking at the freeways.

An overhead shot of the MacArthur Maze, an interchange of freeways in Oakland.
An overhead shot of the MacArthur Maze, an interchange of freeways in Oakland. (Amir Aziz)

Deep potholes turn into kiddie pools when it rains, and signs remind us to be mindful of freeway flooding, evidence of crumbling infrastructure and climate change. Self-automated tollbooths exemplify the post-pandemic changes to labor. No two drivers are alike, so Nissan Altimas travel at the speed of light, zooming past Prii that move as slow as molasses in the winter; it’s clear that this place is the epicenter of diversity.

The development of cookie-cutter homes alongside the freeway in suburban areas display our continued sprawl. The rise in homelessness is evidenced by the number of people I see walking on the shoulder of freeways, pushing shopping carts and carrying large backpacks. The amount of shootings on freeways shows us that we do indeed have a problem with guns in this country.

The freeways are dangerous, and they’re beautiful. For some, they’re a quick way to get from point A to point B. For others, the freeway is the route to happiness.

Light traffic on the move and Oakland in the background on an overcast day in the Bay.
Light traffic on the move and Oakland in the background on an overcast day in the Bay. (Amir Aziz)

I live on the freeway, bobbing to my music while crossing bridges, yelling at people who cut me off.  I slow down for the California Highway Patrol (CHP), and speed up when the freeway is empty. And far too often I sit in places where traffic is notoriously snarled — near the Sunol Grade, on the Yolo Bypass, or passing through the MacArthur Maze — and I ask myself questions.

What does the prevalence of futuristic charging stations and electric cars say about the South Bay? Who controls the cameras of the self-driving cars in San Francisco? Why are Vallejo’s onramps so abrupt? Why can’t people learn how to merge?

And most importantly, if we can readily see the issues that plague our society, why do we keep driving past them?

This week, as we celebrate Rightnowish’s 200th episode, I give you a glimpse into the things that I think about while I’m bending corners on Northern California’s highways and byways.


Episode Transcript

Pendarvis Harshaw, host: Hey, what’s up y’all?! [sings] Do you know what today is? It’s our 200th episode. Two hundred. We bicentennial out here, man, yeah!

Thank you to everyone, everyone who’s appeared on this podcast, tuned in, shared it with a friend. If you’ve attended an event, thank you. And of course, as always, big love to the home team! Thank you for helping me make this thing. 

Two-hundo! Yeah, let’s do it!

Okay look, today I’ve got a special, personal essay for you.  Yes, just for you, from me. It’s about how I’m always driving all around Northern California constantly in pursuit of a deeper understanding of the culture of this region. And then one day, while sitting in traffic, it all clicked: 

This is the culture. Right here. On this freeway. Gridlocked, surrounded by hybrids and under buckets, with signs of the times all around us! I gotta let the people know! 

So, Imma let y’all know… 

[Radio tuning, static]

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: You can tell a lot about the state of society in this region by simply looking at California’s freeways. And because of that, the freeways both fascinate me and they frighten me. They’re the key to life out here, and they’re a death trap.  

On one hand, they allow folks quicker ways to get to work, home, the homie’s house or a happy place.

A lot of us live on the freeways, myself included. The roads bend and curve around the foothills and valleys that make up this immaculate piece of land. If you take the right road, it’ll push you up to an elevation that’ll allow you to see the sun touching the earth in a whole new way. On a clear day, California’s freeways provide brief glimpses of heaven. 

[Traffic, street noise]

Pendarvis Harshaw: And, at the same time, every single day these freeways produce the most hellacious traffic for no [car horn]-ing reason. At that one spot where multiple lanes converge– sending one group of drivers to San Francisco, and the others through Emeryville– it can take 15 minutes to drive a quarter mile. There’s aggressive honking, animated hand gestures and cold eye contact. Some cars are going too slow, others too fast. And then, when you finally get through it all, there’s inevitably two people at the front of the line who act as if they’ve never merged before. 

On top of the possibility of sitting in traffic so long that your soul rots inside of your living flesh, there’s a chance that being involved in an accident while driving on one of these freeways might actually take your life. 

In this state, around four-thousand drivers die in car accidents each year. State by state, adjusted for population, California’s rate of drivers killed in car accidents is lower than most. But out here, nasty weather and DUI’s, distracted driving and high-speed joyriding– those aren’t the only hazards to avoid on the highways and byways. Unfortunately, it can get even more dangerous to drive in the golden state. 

According to state reports, last year there were 274 shootings on California freeways, a drop from 349 the year prior. Shootings are attributed to a wide range of occurrences – from mistaken identity, to conflicts between rival factions to road rage. Sadly, shootings on freeways aren’t new, but during the height of the pandemic there was a spike in freeway shootings, and California wasn’t alone in that rise. Across the nation confirmed reports of shootings have gone up more than 50% since 2019. 

In Northern California, a number of the shootings have been concentrated in the East Bay and have resulted in bystanders caught in crossfire, including children. 

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: There’s a certain way you have to move while on the highways and freeways in California, it’s a culture unto itself.

These roads don’t just connect locations, they merge people of different ethnicities, religions, races and economic backgrounds. Some folks drive wildly, covering both lanes. Some people drive conservatively, hands on 10 and 2, not going a single mile per hour over the speed limit. 

Not everyone out here drives, and I know plenty of people who avoid the freeways. But if you’re looking for a place to take an interesting sample size of life out here, the freeway is a microcosm of everything that’s going on right now.

 [White noise of highway traffic]

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: Last year I drove all around Northern California, putting over thirty-thousand miles on my lil Honda hybrid. I call her Hot Chocolate, after the popular 1970s and 80s British soul band, the one that made the song,“Sexy Thing,” 

[Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate, playing through a car radio]

“Where are you from? You sexy thing”

Pendarvis Harshaw:…  amongst other notable tracks. All that mileage was in effort to gain an understanding of the culture of this region. Working as a journalist, I go from studios to schools, radio stations to live events, constantly in traffic. Somewhere along the way, between the Sunol Grade and the MacArthur Maze, I realized that I was looking past the greatest example of what’s going on in this part of the world: the freeway!

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: We can start by looking at the signs. We’ve got these digital billboards notifying drivers that ‘driving high is a DUI’

[Sounds of sizzling, long exhale]

Pendarvis Harshaw: …because we’re clearly a state that enjoys its cannabis. All over this region there are signs telling folks that certain freeways and highways are subject to flooding. That’s the most modest way of saying, “Yo, we’ve got some archaic infrastructure, and climate change is kicking our ass!” On some freeways, there are signs asking drivers to be mindful of pedestrians. As the amount of unsheltered people living near underpasses increases, so do the amount of people I’ve seen walking on the shoulder or even across the freeway. Yeah, I’m very mindful.

The signs of the times don’t stop there. Look at the cars: the bumper stickers in Berkeley boasting leftist leaning political perspectives, trucks with the Trump flags can be spotted from Folsom to Fresno.

There’s big cars with small ‘blue lives matter’ decals, SUVs with skis overhead, heading to Tahoe. There’s Pacific Islander biker crews with palm trees etched on their leather vests, lowrider squads in the slow lane, back to back to back to back, sun glistening off candy paint and gold thangs; cars with 49ers flags on both sides as they ride. Man, look, the first time I saw a “Las Vegas Raiders” license plate frame, I damn near lost my mind.

All around the Bay Area there are cars with broken windows, covered in translucent plastic or taped pieces of cardboard because of break-ins. It’s heart shattering. And the sheer number of hybrids and electric vehicles in the South Bay is astounding. I often wonder who’s on the other side of the camera as I stare at the self-driving cars when I get off the freeway in Frisco. 

Somewhere, right now in the East Bay there’s a 2004 Nissan Altima with no license plates breaking the sound barrier as they hit the HOV lane.

[Engine rumbles, traffic noise]

Pendarvis Harshaw: The freeway shows us where our money goes. 18-wheelers drive in the second lane of 880. Big box trucks slow down traffic on the 5. I don’t drive behind lumber trucks coming down highway 50 because the movie Final Destination 2 scarred me as a teen. Sweet childhood memories come to mind as I point to a caravan of vehicles carrying miscellaneous pieces of amusement rides – the carnival is in town!

There are constantly military vehicles headed to Travis Airforce Base, and a fleet of police officers in Vacaville, so you’ve got to be mindful of the CHP speed traps.   

Tickets suck. The financial penalty for being in the carpool lane at the wrong time differs from county to county. And I still don’t understand how the express lane on 680 works, so I just stay out of it. 

Between these tickets and tolls, how much money does the state make off of drivers? I wonder.

As workers in orange vests and hard hats lay pavement and new lines on the road, the freeways are growing even wider. What do these freeways say about the future of our region?

I watch adjacent developments of cookie-cutter housing situations on land that was once a salt marsh, rolling hillsides, and grassy valleys. We’re sprawling further and further into the Delta and Central Valley. Who is this housing for? 

 [Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: I sit in traffic, listening to funk songs and podcasts, stand up comedy and early 90s southern gangsta rap, asking myself philosophical questions:

How much of the airborne pollution in this region comes from vehicles on the freeway? How many animals – turkeys, skunks, deer and other wildlife – are killed by cars every year? Is the love of my life in that Jetta that just cut me off? So many questions come from these freeways, and so do answers about the world right now.

The amount of shootings on freeways shows us that we do indeed have a serious problem with access to guns in this country. The amount of people walking on the side of the road, carrying backpacks or pushing shopping carts, that’s a clear sign that there are far too many unhoused people in this state. The biggest issues of our time, from class disparities to climate change, can be identified by simply looking at what’s happening on the freeway and it’s been that way. 

When they constructed the interstate highway system in this country, you know the one that decimated a number of working class majority African American communities, while building the infrastructure that supported the droves of middle class, mostly white communities being replanted in the suburbs of this country, what did that say about America in the 1950s? 

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: Go even further back, it’s not just freeways that show where our money is invested and where the culture is headed. How we move, why we move and the way we move has always been a clear window into our way of life. It not only shows the innovation and creativity, but the issues as well. 

So my question, as I sit in traffic in Emeryville, watching two people argue at that same old spot that pisses everyone off: if we can see the issues, why do we keep driving past them?

[Car honks three times, motorcycle engine rumbles]

Pendarvis Harshaw: This episode was written and recited by me, Pendarvis Harshaw. It was produced by Marisol Medina Cadena. Chris Hambrick is our editor. Christopher Beale is our sound designer and engineer. Sheree Bishop is the Rightnowish production intern. Additional support provided by Jen Chien, Katie Sprenger, Cesar Saldaña, Ugur Dursun and Holly Kernan.

Rightnowish is a KQED Production.

200 of ‘em. Yeeeaaaah! Let’s do like, 200 more! After a quick nap. Yeah… Peace.

 

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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