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How I learned to stop worrying and love the 880 freeway

Julie Caine
On the 880 freeway in Oakland

This story originally aired in November of 2011. 

The Bay Area’s first real freeway was the 880. Completed in 1957, it connects the Port of Oakland with San Jose. Today it’s a major trucking route, and the most direct way to get to the Oakland Airport, or to a Raiders game.

But those things aren’t what set it apart from other freeways. Of all the Bay Area’s roads, the 880 — also called the Nimitz freeway — is arguably the one that gets the most people the most worked up.

The American Automobile Association once named the “Nasty Nimitz” the “rudest road” in the Bay Area. And as far as we can tell, it’s the only highway with Yelp reviews, which say things like, "880 is like the backwards bigotted (sic) relative in the family that everyone is ashamed of." And, "Dammit 880, why can't you be nicer and more manicured like your East Bay cousins 80 and 580?" And, "There is a stretch around Downtown Oakland that is sooo freakin' bumpy it's like ridin' in a horse-drawn buggy down the Oregon Trail. You have died from dysentery."

Why so much distaste for one stretch of pavement? To answer that, we need to learn the real story of one of Oakland’s most maligned roads.

A maze of 80s

Start driving on any freeway in the central Bay Area, and you’ll soon find yourself in a maze of 80s: the 280, the 380, the 580, the 680, the 980, the plain old 80. And then ... there’s the 880.

Cecille Isidro, Ron Light, Rosalinda Montez Palacios, and Whitfield McTair are four of the 220,000 people who drive the 880 every day. And they all agree that there’s something uniquely terrible about it — some perfect storm of traffic and design that doesn’t affect any other freeway. Here are a few things you should know about the road.

Isidro says that the commute "feels like Frogger ... Avoid the pothole here, don't hit the semi, stay in your lane, you know, exit 200 feet!" 

Light confesses that he feels "scared to death" and "hemmed in," in particular because "it feels like there's a big rig always on either side of you."  

"I don't want to blame the shortcomings of my personal life on a stretch of freeway." —Cecille Isidro

"Everybody is literally locked in like a puzzle," Palacios adds, "because they don't want to slow down for you to let you in to that lane or whatever you want to get into."

Yet the 880 is the only freeway route between Oakland and San Jose that semi trucks can use. Part of it collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and since then, seismic retrofitting and construction have been pretty much ongoing.

Which brings us back to Cecille Isidro, who lives in Alameda and works in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, about a mile away. She used to live in San Francisco. She moved to avoid the 880.

Personal relationships

"My relationship with the 880 has reached that point where it's like, you know, why I stayed home that night? Because I didn't want to get on the 880," she says. "I don't want to blame the shortcomings of my personal life on a stretch of freeway."

The idea of the 880 as a freeway you have a personal relationship with — for better or for worse — came up a lot in my interviews. 

That includes a truck driver, Gary Fawcett, who described the highway as "that hairy, smelly uncle with the stinky cigars."

The consensus opinion got me wondering — how did the 880 get to be the way it is? And could anything change it for the better? Fawcett might not believe this, but there's actually somebody who's job it is to groom that hairy, smelly uncle.

His name is Scott McCrank, and he manages traffic and construction on the 880 for Caltrans.

"They had this position created so I can help manage the mess, let’s say," he observes. 

As we talk, McCrank is taking me on a tour of the section of 880 between downtown Oakland and Hayward. Right now, there are seven different construction projects on this 15-mile stretch. Hence the bumpy roads, the short merges, the unmarked lanes, the lack of shoulders, and all those white knuckle rides. 

I ask McCrank to explain some of what drivers experience when they travel on the road. I thought about it the way I’d consider a family member. Maybe if we knew more about what’s behind the dysfunction, we could learn to love the 880.

First question: when we drive past downtown Oakland, what are those little ridges in some of the lanes that make the ride so turbulent?

"That’s because we have replaced the concrete panels, but we haven’t done the grinding yet," McCrank says. "There’s a little bit of undulation, so sometimes when you’re driving it, you feel like it’s ... not really like a roller coaster, but it kind of goes up and down a little bit. Your steering kind of bumps up and down."

We keep driving, crossing over Fifth Avenue. I notice that the lanes really do feel especially narrow. Are they?

Secrets of highway construction

"A typical lane would be 12 feet wide," he says, "but when you're driving in a construction zone, and we don't have all the usable width just yet, we do narrow the lanes down to 11-foot lanes. And so you'll notice it. It may not seem like much, but it’s a foot across all the lanes."

Is that safe?

"To do some of the work that we need to do, with keeping full lanes open, we'd probably have to reduce the amount of lanes," he says. "So instead of having four lanes, we'd have to eliminate one all together and we'd probably be causing a huge backup. So it's kind of one of the trade-offs that you have."

But there’s not even a shoulder in some places. What if you break down or if there’s an accident?

"If you’re stuck in an area where there’s no shoulder, just get as far to the right as you can, turn your flashers on and stay inside the vehicle is the best advice we have," he offers. 

In case you’re wondering, the lanes aren’t going to be shoulder-less forever. There are places where they’ve built one in. But in other spots, there’s only so far they can go.

"The brick building, it’s probably, it’s our choke point," he says. "There’s not enough room to get any extra lanes through there."

The brick building McCranky is referring to is one of several near the 23rd Avenue exit. It marks the spot where freeway construction cut directly through the middle of the now defunct California Cotton Mills, back in the 1950s. It’s a historic site — so, the 880’s probably not getting any wider. 

Now that I’d learned so much about the 880, I wanted to experience it on its own terms.

I rode on the 880 during rush hour — in the rain. I wanted to get on the road and just see if I could make my peace with it. I was thinking about the 880 as this, you know, crotchety old uncle that you’re going to have to sit down with at the Thanksgiving table, whether you like it or not.

And, how do you reconcile with that?

The 880 is a feature of our lives, and it kind of makes us who we are. Sort of like those family members who you just have to learn to love.

I guess the thing I have to say is 880, where would I be without you?