A big rig truck on the 880 freeway. Big trucks like this one are banned on the I-580 freeway. (Teodros Hailye/KQED)
A handful of kids sit in teacher Patrick Messac's sixth grade classroom at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in East Oakland. They're surrounded by colorful wall displays of human anatomy, moon cycles, and books categorized by scientific topics. Then there are the signs of the pandemic: one kid at each table, each distanced from their neighbors, air filters and stacks of unused chairs.
The chairs are for the rest of the class, who are at home, zooming into the discussion instead. While this makes the conversation stop-and-go, the students are focused. They're talking about air pollution, and it's personal.
"It just hurts to know that our community is slowly dying because of this air pollution," says student Jasmine Orejudos.
Orejudos and her classmates live in East Oakland, a region traversed by the Interstate 880 highway. The freeway is heavily used by large trucks, bringing goods from the Port of Oakland to the rest of California and the country. The majority of those trucks are powered by diesel.
Most of students at Life Academy are Latino, and studies show communities where Black and Latino people live are overburdened with pollution. Students have been making connections between the dirty air they breathe and some of the poor health they experience.
"Me and my granny both have asthma and sometimes we can't even go outside to enjoy ourselves because of the diesel-burning trucks," said student Rodney Moten.
As the class studied air quality issues, they came across a state law that seemed odd to them. For 70 years, large trucks have been banned on a stretch of the Interstate 580 freeway that runs along the base of the East Bay Hills in Oakland and San Leandro. As a result, large trucks nearly exclusively drive through — and pollute — neighborhoods in Oakland's flatlands.
This realization got students like Belinda Castro wondering: "Why are large polluting trucks banned on I-580, the highway that runs through the Oakland hills, but not the 880, the highway that runs through my neighborhood?"
The students aren't the only ones questioning this decades-old ban. Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, who supported the ban in 1999 when he was on the Oakland City Council, said he's changed his thinking.
"Knowing what I know now, I would make a different decision to try to phase it out," Miley said. "We need to take steps to phase that ban out."
Miley was quick to add that he wants to improve air quality along I-880, but not at the expense of reducing air quality along I-580.
Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan called the ban "a troubling example of environmental racism." Kaplan said the state law "should be reconsidered."
San Leandro City Councilmember Fred Simon supports lifting the ban as well. He plans to reach out to local elected leaders and agencies "to build a coalition to overturn the 580 truck ban through state legislative efforts."
But changing the law will take more than statements to the press. Others have tried, and failed, to lift the ban in its 70-year history. To actually get it done would require support from Oakland, San Leandro and state government.
The Ban Goes All the Way Back to the 1950s
Oakland is sandwiched between hills to the east and the San Francisco Bay to the west.
"I-880 traverses the flatlands and I-580 largely hugs the hills," said Robert Self, a history professor at Brown University. His book American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland is about the fight for civil rights after World War II. "This has been historically a representation of the class and to some extent racial divide in the East Bay," he said.
The hills were middle and upper middle class, and the flatlands were working class.
The truck ban on 580 dates back to 1951, before the road was even a highway. Then it was called MacArthur Boulevard and Oakland's City Council wanted to keep it free from truck traffic.
"MacArthur Boulevard was what you might call the heart of middle class white Oakland in those years," Self said. "It was a neighborhood whose opinions about the world had the ear of city hall."
And a neighborhood that didn’t have heavy industry like the flatlands. The trucks were re-routed onto the already-constructed 880 highway (then State Route 17).
"The city, at the time, certainly did not believe that [flatland] neighborhoods mattered in the same way that the hill neighborhoods mattered," Self said.
The Road Evolves, But the Ban Remains
When MacArthur Boulevard became a highway in the early 1960s, the City of Oakland continued the ban on a roughly nine mile stretch of highway without significant debate. It applied to vehicles weighing more than 9,000 pounds, like big rigs, but not smaller trucks like those delivering packages on residential streets. The ban also excluded buses.
In 1967, the ban was up for renewal, this time sparking a more intense deliberation. The possibility that trucks could barrel down both East Bay highways made people irate.
Several news articles in the Oakland Tribune outlined the controversy. Those wanting to continue the ban to keep heavy-duty trucks off 580 were led by Oakland's then-mayor John Reading, and known as "Citizens Against Trucks on MacArthur Freeway." They argued the area around the highway was far more residential, had more schools and hospitals, and that the road itself was curvier and hillier than 880.
One of the loudest voices on the other side was Richard Zeller of the California Trucking Association. He argued that taxes on trucks partially funded the freeway. He also brought up equity, saying the ban was "discriminatory against the people who live near the Nimitz Freeway [ I-880 ] or must use it."
He continued, "Are the senses of those living along the MacArthur Freeway more acute than those living along all the other freeways in the state? Are the schools and hospitals more valuable?"
The California Department of Transportation, Caltrans, studied the issue in 1967 to verify that trucks could travel an alternate route instead of 580. The study looked at traffic, not impacts on health or quality of life. According to their website, the department concluded that "there was no strong evidence either to retain or to terminate the truck ban." Caltrans recommended the ban be extended indefinitely, but with periodic reviews of "operations of the alternate routes, 238 and 880."
Those reviews happened just a few times, with none occurring after 1972.
The 1990s: Asking 'A Simple Question'
In 1999, Robert Ramorino, head of Roadstar Trucking, asked what he called "a simple question."
"How come my trucks are banned on this stretch of 580?" he said.
Ramorino would later go on to become the president of the California Trucking Association. Like his predecessor, he found the ban insulting. He was paying federal highway use taxes for his trucks, which were not allowed to go on the highway running near his business. If heavy trucks were allowed on 580 it would be convenient for both his company and freight movement in general, he said.
Ramorino said he and the California Trucking Association asked Caltrans to study lifting the ban on trucks on the 580 freeway. And according to their website, Caltrans officials said if they found good reasons to lift the ban — and the City of Oakland was onboard — they would recommend opening the freeway to trucks.
That study never happened though. Residents living along 580 worried studying the issue would open the door to lifting the ban, so they put pressure on their representatives to stop the study before it started. And the Oakland City Council passed a resolution affirming they wanted to continue the ban.
"We thought keeping trucks off of 580 was a good thing based on traffic safety. I don't think we were really thinking a lot about air quality at the time," said Miley, the Alameda County supervisor, who was on the Oakland City Council in 1999.
State legislators also wanted to stop the study and continue the ban.
"I was getting dozens and dozens of calls from angry neighbors who wanted to know why this was happening," said former Assemblymember Ellen Corbett, whose district included Alameda, San Leandro and much of Oakland.
Corbett was a newly-elected state assemblymember at the time. She held a meeting for constituents and Caltrans representatives.
"We ended up with hundreds of people. In fact, there were so many people that came to the meeting, there was overflow out into the parking lot," Corbett said.
She said residents were worried about noise and road safety. Corbett said her research about the I-580 showed it wasn't made for trucks, which Caltrans refuted: "the freeway was designed to be safe for all vehicular traffic."
Beyond this, however, Corbett says her constituents felt that if Oakland and San Leandro lifted the ban, they would be breaking a promise made to residents decades ago.
"People were actually displaced and homes were taken from people," she said. "There was a commitment made that trucks would not be on that freeway because these neighborhoods had been destroyed."
Building freeways through established neighborhoods was commonplace by that time. It often happened to communities of color, who didn't have the political clout to extract promises like a ban on trucks.
Corbett said she did not hear from any of her constituents who lived or worked along the I-880 freeway. She wrote a bill to make the ban permanent. It was signed into law in 2000 by California Governor Gray Davis.
A large truck ban on an interstate is exceedingly rare, and the I-580 highway ban is the only one of its kind meant to assuage the concerns of local residents. According to the Federal Highway Authority, there are only nine such bans nationwide. Seven of those bans are due to construction or structural engineering constraints. One ban — on the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge in D.C. — was ordered by President Eisenhower to keep trucks away from the Lincoln Memorial.
Considering the Truck Ban from a Health Perspective
The Life Academy sixth graders learned one of the factors contributing to asthma is polluted air: The tiny particles in diesel exhaust are some of the most dangerous.
"We may not see this bad air, but we can breathe it," said student Abrianna Meza. "These diesel trucks burn fuel that causes black carbon."
Phil Martien, of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, agreed. "Those particles are small enough to get deep into lungs and in some cases even pass through the lung barrier to get into the bloodstream." In Martien's role as director of the Assessment, Inventory, & Modeling Division, he reviews how air pollution is distributed in the Bay Area.
He said diesel particles, and the chemicals attached to them, can lead to heart attacks, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of diseases that make it hard to breathe.
"Young people are particularly vulnerable because their lungs are still developing," Martien said. "There's actually been studies where they've looked at young lungs of children who live near freeways and their lungs don't ever fully develop,” as compared to kids living farther from busy freeways. Martien says living by freeways can also cause asthma.
A collaborative project by the Environmental Defense Fund, a technology company Aclima, Google Street View and The University of Texas at Austin found that concentrations of harmful pollutants from diesel exhaust were significantly higher in neighborhoods along 880 than those along 580. Black carbon concentrations were roughly 80% higher, nitrogen dioxide concentrations were 60% higher, and nitric oxide were more than double.
What a Truck Ban Means for Equity
Historian Robert Self said what’s happened with the 580 truck ban is the definition of structural racism.
"People can make decisions that don't on their face, seem as if they're motivated by racial animosity but have profound downstream racial effects," Self said. "Any individual person can make a decision within that system that appears entirely neutral, and yet it's got massive racial impacts and effects."
Angela Scott, an East Oakland community organizer with the environmental justice group Communities for a Better Environment, agreed. She said she's talked with people across East Oakland about whether they'd want to push back on the 580 truck ban.
"Folks said, 'We don't want to put that on anybody else because it's horrible,'" Scott said.
But Scott thinks if East Oakland residents don’t push back against policies like this one it hides the problem. Truck emissions are just one example of the outsized pollution burden her community bears, she said. She thinks it's time for change.
"We have to go beyond, 'Oh, that was maybe a bad decision,'" Scott said. "How do we undo all those bad decisions with all the things that we know now? How do we fix it so that people are sharing burdens? That's solidarity."
The sixth grade students at Life Academy have plenty of ideas to improve air quality along their highway, from electrifying trucks to planting more trees in the community, to distributing free air purifiers to people living in heavily polluted areas.
Angela Scott, of Communities for a Better Environment, wants to take things further.
"Lift that ban," she said. "I know people are not going to like it, but it's such a racist policy. Lift the ban!"
Students are pushing for one more thing, something community advocates have been demanding for decades: a study of the ban's health effects. And there has been some movement on that front. Bay Area air district officials said in an email to KQED they are committed to studying health impacts of the 580 truck ban, "probably in the 2022-2023 time frame."
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