Highway 50 Traffic Today

Road construction in the USA Route 66: an endless ribbon of asphalt and, for many, a symbol of freedom. © picture alliance / Zoonar / Paolo Gallo By Arndt Peltner – 30.11.2022 What brought the USA closer together was the construction of an extensive highway and freeway network in the 1950s and 1960s. But when they were built, black neighborhoods were often disadvantaged and left behind. Today, the debate is. Get your motor runnin’ Head out on the highway Looking for adventure In whatever comes our way Steppenwolf’s highway anthem “Born to Be Wild” painted a picture of the American highway and freeway system that still shapes our imagination today: Freedom, vastness, a view that can reach a hundred miles, an endless ribbon of asphalt stretching across America. But – that’s not the whole reality… On many car trips in my old VW bus from Oakland, where I live, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – 3,500 kilometers – I was always struck by this feeling: The horizon is opening up. Setting the cruise control to 70 miles per hour, out into the vastness, letting my thoughts run free. There are stretches of road where you drive and drive, no other car far and wide, no one overtakes you, no one comes to meet you. On the FM band on the radio only static, over the medium wave there are still a few stations: Farm Talk, Gun Talk, Oldies and a station with Mariachi music. A feeling of freedom, the dream of America.

Over mountains, through deserts and forests

On the long highways you get to know America. Mile after mile you drive the route that just doesn’t want to end, over mountains, through deserts and huge forest areas, and I wonder how the settlers once got on here on their horse-drawn wagons without roads, paths, cross-country, not knowing what was still to come. Even today it is arduous. When I merge onto Interstate 80 in Oakland, I stay on 80 all the way into eastern Nevada. Highway 93 crosses the freeway, a few gas stations, a few fast food restaurants. North, into Idaho, continue east before Twin Falls. Blackfoot, Idaho Falls, Big Sky, Yellowstone National Park. At Bozeman onto Interstate 90, 800 miles straight through Montana, North Dakota to Minnesota. It’s a long lonely highway when you’re travelin’ all alone And it’s a mean old world when you got no-one to call your own And you pass through towns too small to even have a name, oh yes But you gotta keep on goin’, on that road to nowhere Gotta keep on goin’, though there’s no-one to care Just keep movin’ down the line “(It’s A) Long Lonely Highway” by Elvis Presley From Oakland to Michigan it takes me about 40 hours to cover the 3,500 kilometers. Gas up, walk the dog a few steps, power naps, 30 to 45 minutes of sleep, then it’s on. The road system is well developed, traffic minimal. I drive around conurbations. Even though you have a speed limit on all highways and most freeways, you still make good progress. The road system is excellent in connecting almost all corners of this vast country. It is a system with a plan.

Expansion of the road network after 1956

In 1956, the so-called “National Interstate Defense and Highways Act” was passed: the largest road construction project in American history up to that time. With an incredible 25 billion dollars at the time, more than 66,000 kilometers of freeways and highways were to be built across the United States within ten years. A network of roads that would connect America’s metropolises.

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I agree to external content being displayed to me. This means that personal data is transmitted to third-party platforms. Deutschlandradio has no influence on this. You can read more about this in our privacy policy. You can deactivate the display at any time. The word defense was deliberately used in this law because, on the one hand, money from the defense budget was used for the Freeway project. For another, almost all continental air bases in the U.S. were connected to this network so that they could respond quickly in the event of a ballistic or nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

Military rationale for road expansion

In a memo to Congress on February 22, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower also justified the need for extensive construction of a freeway and highway network in the United States on military grounds. In the event of a nuclear attack on our major cities, the highway network must permit rapid evacuation of targeted areas, mobilization of defense units, and maintenance of any vital economic facilities. But the present system in critical areas would be an incubator for clogging within hours of an attack. Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower’s enthusiasm for a U.S.-wide and interconnecting freeway system stems from his personal experience. Eisenhower participated in the US Army’s first “Transcontinental Motor Convoy” from Washington DC to San Francisco in 1919 as a 28-year-old lieutenant colonel. Departure was on July 7, arrival on September 6. 62 days “on the road” for a distance that today can be covered in 42 hours. Eisenhower’s experiences during the war in Germany (here at headquarters in London) also led him to expand the road network in the U.S. © picture alliance / AP At that time, the Lincoln Highway, the first highway designed for cars, was used from coast to coast. An arduous journey on a bumpy road through 13 states, on which bridges had to be stabilized for the convoy on the way, vehicles pulled out of the mud and, due to the poor road surface, repaired several times. Then there were his experiences in what was once enemy territory, Germany. “The old convoy made me think about the good two-lane highways, but in Germany I saw the wisdom of a wide ribbon throughout the country,” he writes in his 1967 book, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, in the chapter “Through Darkest America With Truck and Tank.”

The U.S. as a car nation

The United States had changed fundamentally after the end of World War II. America became a car nation, which was also promoted by the so-called G.I. Bill. In 1944, the U.S. Congress had passed a law that was supposed to help World War II veterans financially after their return – through unemployment benefits, cheap loans for buying a house and starting a business, plus the assumption of tuition fees.

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I agree to have external content displayed to me. This means that personal data is transmitted to third-party platforms. Deutschlandradio has no influence on this. You can read more about this in our privacy policy. You can deactivate the display at any time. However, this law did not benefit all war returnees in the same way. For it was still modeled on the Jim Crow laws, those racial laws in many American states that had sealed a strict separation between whites and African-Americans after the American Civil War. The result was that the G.I. Bill primarily helped white war returnees, but African-Americans mostly went away empty-handed. As a result, blacks in the U.S. were further left behind economically; many whites, on the other hand, moved to the suburbs with their families to turn their backs on the overcrowded big cities in a newly built home of their own, according to Ben Crowther of the nonprofit organization The Congress for the New Urbanism, a group of urban planners. Urban planning grew considerably in the 1950s, he says. “The ideas that promoted that stood for a new lifestyle, promoting suburban living. This idea that there’s a possible separation there between where you work and where you live.” The U.S., a land of drivers: convertible traffic jam at Daytona Beach in Florida circa 1959.© picture alliance / United Archives / Erich Andres At the same time, he says, this idea was also associated with suburban life being primarily a white lifestyle: white suburban life at the expense of other communities, especially communities of color, that stood in their way. “That’s how methods like red lining came about, even though that had been around since the 1930s. But it also gave us our highway and interstate system in the cities.”

Disadvantaging African-American neighborhoods

Red Lining: the term stands for an imaginary barbed-wire draw in U.S. cities and towns that became an invisible but palpable reality for decades, especially for African-Americans. Through the so-called “National Housing Act” of 1934, the government in Washington had divided neighborhoods into different areas. The letter A stood for an all-white neighborhood, desirable for the middle class. Even one colored family in the neighborhood pushed the grade from A to B, and this had dramatic consequences, as neighborhoods below A were specifically disadvantaged. Thus, African-Americans were pushed into neighborhoods where it was harder to get mortgages or insurance, where there was less business and urban development investment. These neighborhoods fell behind white neighborhoods and suburbs. By the 1970s, this form of urban discrimination remained common practice, with consequences to this day.

Highway construction with consequences

“If we look at highway construction, there were courses of roads chosen primarily for racist reasons, by racist highway builders,” says Ben Crowther. “There’s been a system established that a highway designer will pick the route where there’s the least opposition to fear, both from a financial and political standpoint.” Among the greatest costs of a road builder, he said, is in acquiring land through compensation payments in the event of eminent domain. “That’s why it just hit those neighborhoods where the homes of people of color had been devalued anyway because of the Red Lining. So when you look for the cheapest land, it’s right here, right in those neighborhoods.” Least financial resistance for highway builders. “Also, politically speaking, there were no influential forces here in the ’50s and ’60s that stood up for these neighborhoods when their homes were simply in the way of a proposed highway. All of that led to the highway network we have today, which did a lot of damage when it was built and still impacts the same neighborhoods, as well as the descendants of those who were there back then.”

Freeways for white suburbanites

This freeway story begins with World War II. “The freeways were built to be able to move tanks quickly from one city to another, and then also, as you can see in West Oakland, because a lot of people who had money and were white and were allowed to live elsewhere moved away, to the suburbs, like Hayward, San Leandro, Pleasanton or Walnut Creek. They needed a quick connection to the city, to Oakland and San Francisco,” says Quinton Sankofa. He is a community organizer and activist for a fairer life in Oakland, California. It was precisely the former “Black Town,” as Oakland was long called because of its large African-American population, that was affected. So the freeways were built to connect the suburbs to the inner cities, which were pretty much black all over the country, Sankofa points out. “You really find that all over the United States. The poor blacks stayed in West Oakland. The whites with money moved away to the outside. Those were the reasons.” So the freeways were planned “to go right through West Oakland,” right through 7th Street, Oakland’s black cultural district. “That’s where that wonderful jazz came from, the arts and culture that people associate with Oakland today. This was all in the 1950s, when America was dreaming this suburban dream and firing it up with huge amounts of money. But no money was invested in the inner cities.”

Devastated, disconnected neighborhoods

West Oakland starts just past the Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco and Oakland, right next to the harbor and sewage treatment plant. The 580 eastbound to the Central Valley and the 880 southbound to San Jose split here and are routed around West Oakland. Then there’s the 980, which is just two miles long and connects the 580 and 880 freeways parallel to downtown. It is this 980 that separates the historically African-American neighborhood in West Oakland from downtown. It’s a freeway that seems gigantic and has long been considered completely unnecessary. “A five-lane freeway that was once originally intended as a feeder to another Trans Bay Bridge, but that was never built,” as city planner Chris Sensening describes it. The original plans for this downtown freeway seem gigantic and like the pipe dreams of unleashed city planners. The 980 was to be a feeder to an entirely new and never-built bridge that would connect Oakland to the southern part of San Francisco and relieve pressure on the Bay Bridge, built in 1936. A bridge that would have further fractured and burdened Oakland. Cruising down the highway In my fine machine Lake pipes really singing The engine sounds real mean Sound is a gas Sound is a gas Well, I can hardly wait To hear that big V8 Ooh, I can hardly wait Yeah, yeah, yeah “Cruisin’ Down The Highway” by The James Gang Just four blocks from the 980 Freeway stands Oakland’s massive City Hall. Here on the second floor, Mayor Libby Schaaf has her office. She was born and raised in Oakland, is a close confidant of Vice President Kamala Harris. Schaaf has made a career here in Oakland. But it wasn’t until she moved into City Hall in 2014 that she was made aware of the 980’s daunting neighborhood problem. “When you look at the 980, it’s depressing,” she says. It runs recessed, she says, reminding her of a moat. “As someone who knows the ugly history of this and many other cities in America, it always looked to me like a racist moat that protected downtown from the black neighborhood of West Oakland. Interestingly, yes, it was built as a feeder to another bridge that never existed. So there is very little traffic on this freeway. It’s not needed. There’s an unneeded scar on the face of my beloved city.”

From highway to shopping center

City planner Chris Sensening knows all too well the history of the 980, a freeway that was planned back in the early 1960s and, after many delays and court rulings, was finally completed in 1985, at a time when it was already clear it was no longer needed. The actual plans for this urban highway, however, were quite different. It was to be an entirely new and indoor shopping center downtown. “The shopping center had promised many jobs. Politicians, as well as quite a few neighborhood groups that were originally opposed, eventually voted to build the freeway.” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (l) with San Francisco Mayor London Breed (r): Schaaf advocates for dismantling racist infrastructure.© picture alliance / abaca / Pool So it was “a story of power and hope,” Sensening said, “that ended up getting the freeway built and West Oakland split off from Downtown.” The mall was never built. “The idea for that mall was something that wouldn’t have done much for the city anyway. It was like a piece of gold that was held out to people but wasn’t really meant for the people of Oakland. The ramps to and from the freeway were supposed to go directly into an underground parking garage. It’s one of those examples of separating the wealthier, white suburbs from the inner cities.”

Discussions of city planning mistakes

From the lowered freeway straight to the shopping temple, no one should have even had to see the streets of African-Americans in West Oakland. The 980 was supposed to be the feeder freeway for all those who lived east of Oakland in the suburbs of Orinda, Moraga, Walnut Creek and Danville. But neither the huge shopping center nor the second bridge materialized. The freeway, on the other hand, was built. Houses were torn down or moved, in the end leaving this massive construction scar in the heart of the city, as Mayor Libby Schaaf describes it. “I grew up in Oakland at a time when it was still seen as a black city. When I was young, there was this White Flight, the white exodus.” Back then, he said, there wasn’t the awareness of segregated and white neighborhoods. “But it becomes quite clear when you look more into the history of the racial restrictions on real estate that have existed for many homes in Oakland as well, showing how government itself has been part of racism, segregation and discrimination. I never thought in the nearly eight years I’ve been mayor that I’d get to the point where we’re talking broadly about dismantling a racist freeway that was only there to separate and divide.”

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I consent to external content being displayed to me. This transmits personal data to third-party platforms. Deutschlandradio has no influence on this. You can read more about this in our privacy policy. You can deactivate the display at any time. Libby Schaaf refers to a broad discussion that has only recently begun. Not just in Oakland, but in many cities across the U.S.: in New York, Minneapolis, Detroit, Miami, and even New Orleans. After decades, the impact of these inner-city freeways is now being reported on with increasing frequency. About how urban planners in the 1950s and 1960s drew freeways from inner cities to the suburbs without regard for existing and established neighborhoods, especially African-American neighborhoods. This debate has picked up steam in recent years.

Black Lives Matter strengthens the discussion

“It’s fair to say that the catalyst for this was George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Nate Miley, who has been supervisor for Alameda County, with Oakland as its largest city, since 2001. He’s been putting his finger in the historical wounds for a long time. “I do think that was the trigger that set everything in motion. But by then there was a foundation that had been built up over time.” The civil rights movement and other events that pointed out discrimination and historical wrongs. “Martin Luther King once put it this way: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I believe that too, that’s what’s happening. It continues to bend. George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement are just another push to recognize historical errors and see if you can address them.” But historical mistakes in urban planning, cemented by the construction of multi-lane freeways through African-American neighborhoods, have also become topics of political contention in the United States. Fox News, for example, the conservative, Trump-affiliated news channel, does not see racism in these urban planning structures. The 980 Freeway is not the only problem in West Oakland. The district is framed by freeways: 880s, 580s, plus the Bart, the regional subway that runs noisily above ground through the neighborhood here. There’s also the Port of Oakland, one of the largest on the American West Coast. Container ships are handled here around the clock, trucks with overseas containers thunder across the streets, long freight trains pass by. Then the large mail distribution center has also been located here against the resistance of the local population, and that too brings more trucks to West Oakland.

Respiratory diseases due to exhaust fumes

The district is considered to be particularly affected when it comes to air pollution in Oakland because of the freeways and the diesel exhaust fumes from the ships and trucks. The result: more asthma and respiratory illnesses. Calls for help from the neighborhood were repeatedly ignored. With each major construction project, the Black community was promised that it would bring jobs to the neighborhood, but each time it was mostly others who earned. The fumes from container ships at the Port of Oakland affect the African-American community the most.© picture alliance / photoagency-online / Blend Images / Tom Paiva Photography Supervisor Nate Miley sees the fight against 980 as a sideshow that isn’t a big priority for him as a local politician. “It would certainly be more symbolic, because just deconstructing the freeway wouldn’t get to the root of racism and injustice,” he says – and yet it’s also clear to him that it’s about much more than just deconstructing a freeway. “Even though I haven’t made up my mind whether I’m for or against it, it’s also clear to me that this symbolic act would also show that we as a society are capable of righting historical wrongs that have been done to People of Color.” So it would be a step in the right direction.

Racism hurts everyone

Mayor Libby Schaaf has tried to right some wrongs in her nearly eight years in office, including a land restitution to the Ohlone people, Native Americans who lived here in this area before whites settled. For Schaaf, it’s clear that coming to terms with deep-rooted racism in the U.S. also begins with such rather “symbolic gestures,” as Supervisor Nate Miley called it. “I think systemic and structural racism is the biggest challenge of our time,” she says. “We as a country have systematically, through laws and through public investment, disenfranchised and robbed a large community: of talent, of health, of wealth, of contributions from large segments of the people-of-color community.” All would be better off “if we uplift people who had been systematically excluded from development,” Schaaf emphasizes. That’s especially true, she says, of this infrastructure, which has a divisive and separative effect, and of the environmental justice issue. “There’s another debate here in Oakland about a freeway that trucks aren’t allowed to drive on,” she says. That freeway, she says, runs along a more white and affluent part of the city and has stricter requirements than the freeways along the poorer, mostly black and brown neighborhoods, over which all the diesel trucks are routed that are banned on the other. “People are now wondering why that is, why are there these additional emissions only where there’s the most air pollution anyway.” Covid showed that these health disparities are exacerbated when something like a pandemic occurs, he said. They are not the result of personal choice, he said. “They are the result of us as a government not only enabling them, but often creating them.”

Deconstruction planned

Oakland’s mayor expresses optimism that 980 will be deconstructed. She sees it as a positive sign that the California Department of Transportation CalTrans is currently preparing a comprehensive report on the pros and cons of deconstruction. This will include, in particular, consideration of how traffic will flow in Oakland in the future if the 980 is no longer there. The funding needed for this in the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan is also a good sign that America is learning from its history, Libby Schaaf said. Billions of dollars just for dismantling historic mistakes, as announced by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at the White House. “I’m still surprised by the fact that some people express surprise when I point out that a highway that was built just to separate white and black neighborhoods, or when there’s an underpass in New York that was deliberately built so low that no bus carrying children from primarily black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods can get to the beach, that that was obviously racism that went into the planning,” he says. “I don’t think we have anything to lose by being aware of this. But we have everything to gain by understanding it and changing it. That’s why we have the Connecting Neighborhoods program, billions of dollars that we want to put to work immediately.” Whether all of this will succeed is questionable. Because all of these plans, the provision to dismantle freeways, of historic misplanning, depend on majorities in Congress and on who is in the White House. On how one looks at American history, at this country itself. Is the U.S. “God’s own country,” the best nation in the world, where mistakes were made but where mistakes are not addressed? Or is the USA a society in which mistakes are made and also admitted? In the deeply divided United States, the answer is still open.

Racism instead of unlimited opportunities

Long highways and freeways. The farther west you drive, the straighter they stretch across the country. Always straight ahead, from coast to coast. On these endless highways, the USA seems limitless. It is always a new experience to drive through the United States of America. These never-ending highways have become a symbol of America’s freedom through stories and movies. The many stickers, the many “Stars and Stripes” on motorcycles, pick-ups, cars and trucks symbolize a country where many are proud of what has been achieved here. Eisenhower’s visionary National Interstate Defense and Highways Act of 1956 is certainly among them. It united American cities and towns, deepening cohesion in this so-diverse country with its disparate interests. But what some saw as freedom became for others another chapter in the long history of racism and discrimination in the “land of opportunity.” Speakers: Max Urlacher, Anne Rathsfeld, Olaf Oelstrom and the author. Sound: Christiane Neumann Director: Stefanie Lazai Editing: Winfried Sträter Highway 50 Traffic Today.

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