Tesla’s Parking Problem Says a Lot About Elon Musk’s Brand of Tech Saviorism

Photo: teslaparkinglot/Instagram
Photo: teslaparkinglot/Instagram

Tech magnate Elon Musk is often held up as the guy with all the answers to our transportation problems. But on infrastructure, his answers always seem to be wildly impractical and oblivious to how transportation and cities work: tunnels to cure L.A. traffic, or pneumatic tubes for speeding intercity travel.

So it’s fitting that the Palo Alto headquarters for Musk’s flagship company, Tesla, has an epic logistical problem caused by the spatial inefficiency of its core product. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Tesla’s parking lot has become a Hobbesian nightmare. One Instagram account mocks employee parking habits like leaving cars on medians and pedestrian walkways.

Joseph Cutrufo at Mobilizing the Region says Musk has to face up to the fact that transportation systems don’t work well when everyone drives:

Instead of asking “where do we park everyone,” Musk really ought to take a step back and ask, “why is everybody driving?” This is a major metropolitan area, so there must be some transit around, right? Is there no other way to get to Tesla’s corporate office in Palo Alto or its manufacturing facility in Fremont?

As it turns out, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) just opened its newest station, Warm Springs/South Fremont, just a stone’s throw from the massive Tesla manufacturing facility in Fremont. But we’d be surprised if anyone working at this facility actually uses it: while it’s just a half-mile to the station as the crow flies, the actual distance for a human is almost two miles. That’s almost 40 minutes on foot, but it probably feels a lot longer when the streets look like this [above].

It seems Musk is belatedly catching on. CBS San Francisco reports that Tesla will begin paying employees to bike to work.

More recommended reading today: Seattle Transit Blog has the supremely disappointing news that every single Democratic member of the Washington House voted in favor of a bill to slash funding for the city’s light rail expansion plan. Systemic Failure reports that just days after California passed a gas tax hike, state highway planners are already putting forward road expansion projects, contrary to public promises. And Pricetags explains why gas stations are disappearing from downtowns in big cities.

97 thoughts on Tesla’s Parking Problem Says a Lot About Elon Musk’s Brand of Tech Saviorism

  1. Having lived without a car for 3 1/2 years in Oklahoma City, I’d amend your initial thought to “It’s also extraordinarily liberating to not NEED to own a car”. Buying a vehicle this past year has freed me up so much for outdoor activities, and other social activities. The liberating aspect is the choice.

  2. I ditched the car and initially rented occasionally to go to the country and then slowly didn’t even do that.


  3. in same amount of land as a multi-story parking structure ;

    one could build housing for the same number of employees with shops & restaurants

    walk to the office

    it’s called civilization

  4. It’s nice that you had the luxury of time to make a 50 mile bike trip for an out of town excursion, but many of us don’t – especially those of us with families and young kids. Cars make total sense for those kinds of off-peak, discretionary trips. I didn’t realize how time poverty facilitated car usage until I was in this position myself.

  5. Agreed that certain life situations a private car is exceedingly useful.

    BUT, my experience is these situations present themselves perhaps 1/2 dozen times each year…. if one plans ones life well.

    That means renting a car is better than owning.

    regarding the 50 mile bike trip for a country weekend and the time it took. I left the city at 0630 and arrived at 1130, before most people would have arrived if they had taken the train or car; because most people would have done nothing all morning 🙂

    This is how I generally frame the subject ;

    Instead of spending an hour the gym plus getting there etc; I use the time to routinely travel via bicycle. The net consumption of time is roughly equal.

  6. Yeah, but you can put them anywhere. No need to expand your lot near the building when the cars can simply drop their owners off at the door and head down the street for parking. Let some lot company deal with that issue.

    Down the line a hair further…..once we’re autonomous you’ll have less than half the cars showing up anyway because carpooling will be a much simpler on-demand task. (after Tesla destroys Uber)

  7. Yes, but the issue being raised here a lack of car parking for a growing a business, and not a demand for people to live next to a fast-growing business!

  8. Tesla’s employees could walk to work.

    They’d be more productive because they needn’t spend 3 hours each day driving.

    Car storage isn’t what Tesla needs, it needs people.

    building car storage buildings is counterproductive.

    Instead build housing on same land.

  9. So you want a law passed that forces people to live within a walkable distance from their job? And if their job changes, they would be forced to move house?

    How does that fit with our cherished notion of freedom?

  10. trust me people would gladly live within walking distance of work

    By the way – most of us are in favour of removing all parking minimums from zoning rules and liberalizing zoning rules. Now that’s liberty

  11. It would seem the logical solution is to administer the same procedures used by United. Start dragging people out of the Tesla building based on some arbitrary numbering system. Keep dragging them out, ala David Dao, til there is room for everyone else.

    Either that, or provide everyone self-driving electric cars and have these cars driving around till the workers are finished working. They then summons their car to pick them up.

    Simple 1……2…….3…….. man this stuff is easy!

  12. I suspect you will find there is also a good number of people who specifically do not want to live close to their work. There can be many reasons for this:

    1) Housing is too expensive in that location
    2) A different school district is preferred
    3) You don’t want to keep running into your work colleagues
    4) You don’t want to be the one the boss always calls in because you live close
    5) You want a psychological buffer between where you live and where you work
    6) You work at an oil refinery, power station or a sewage processing plant
    7) You have friend or family ties to a different area

    But most of all this is America not Russia, and we’re not in the business of building forced residential camps for our workers.

  13. Yes, there have been periods when I have no owned a car, like when I lived in Manhattan or in Europe. There have been other times when I never went a day without driving. A lot depends on the location.

    Mostly the issue was not that I couldn’t manage without a car. I could. But rather that my life became smaller and less rich, opportunities became less frequent and everything took more planning leaving less room for spontaneity.

    And I end up often hitching lifts with others while I could not reciprocate, so started to feel a bit like a heel. With a car I definitely feel a higher quality of life and a greater amount of freedom.

  14. LOL

    you do realize you promote a totalitarian socialist system ?

    elaborate zoning laws with parking mandates

    everyone is forced into driving in isolated compounds based on highly nuanced population factors

    a massive powerful state supporting the broad scope of involuntary taxation & subsidies necessary to prop up mass motoring.

    on the other hand, I preach simplified zoning, freedom to choose how much car storage a property owner provides, and privatization of interstates with consummate elimination of gas taxes.

    my vision allows for people to choose how they live based on real capitalist principles not the statist model you support.

  15. This is exactly right! Heck, even most Danes in Copenhagen own cars (and love driving them in the countryside on weekends) – but they don’t have to if they don’t want to.

    Some transportation modes work better in some contexts than others, for reasons of sheer physics. (Cars, which are space-intensive, are not a good match for the high density urban core, but they’re fast and flexible and great in rural areas.) A great city will make it possible to use the more appropriate modes for each context.

  16. My view is that we create this time poverty for ourselves, and this happens because we have cars.

    We live in a small northern california town, with one car between the two of us, a remnant of living in SF. Most of our friends go to Costco, 20 miles away in Santa Rosa, to stock up on groceries. Since we don’t have the second car, the concept of locking up that car for a trip to Costco just isn’t on the radar, I might be in town on my bike and my wife might call me to grab a few things. I might do that on a daily basis. Financially I’m probably ahead on gas savings and not having car #2, but the biggest impact is just pulling into and out of the local grocery instead of going to Costco.

    I ride bikes recreationally with a local club. When they ride out of Healdsburg or Windsor, I join. When they ride out of Petaluma or Cotati, I blow it off and just ride around Healdsburg. Am I missing out on the riding in Petaluma or gaining 2 hours of time by not choosing an option made infeasible by not having a car at my disposal. Maybe I go to the beach in Healdsburg on a Saturday when my friends went to Bodega Bay – a 2-3 hour round trip, then they work in the yard on Sunday when I did the work in the 2-3 hours I didn’t spend going to the coast. Who is missing out?

  17. Having the pattern of just stopping at the local store on the way home every day is so much more sensible than making grand trips each month or whatever. And carrying two to four bags on a bicycle, just by hanging them on the handlebars, is doable for the last mile home from the store.

  18. Nobody is “forced into driving”. They choose to.

    The fact remains that you are seeking to use the vast apparatus of the state to either bribe, blackmail or compel people to live where some bureaucrat decrees. I am simply allowing people to make their own decisions.

    And my idea has the advantage of already being in place, presumably because the voters are happy with it. Your ideas requires massive changes, significant changes to the law and an element of coercion. Not very American.

  19. so you agree parking mandate in zoning codes should be eliminated ?

    what about privatizing all interstates ?

  20. I think the voters are perfectly capable of deciding how much parking they want and how they want the interstate system to be funded. I trust those voters. Do you?

  21. Actually that picture is in Palo Alto, at 2500 Deer Creek Road. It is limited by the Palo Alto lot coverage zoning rules for the Stanford research park. These are old, low density car centric office park rules. Anyway, to fit more parking, they would have to build a multi-story parking lot on one of the existing lots. That’s happening when similar sites in the research park get redeveloped. The number of parking spaces is supposed to loop back and limit the number of people allowed to work on the site. With this much crowding, I wonder if they are violating the occupancy rules for that site.

  22. Lol good one. You must also not be able to see the light heartedness of the context either. Considering all of my comments are passive, as to yours which are seeking to find an argument where there is none. This may come as a shock but where most people including yourself look for arguments on the web I strictly am against it. I believe the internet works best when all parties focus on collaboration So if you believe you’re having a battle of wits your perspective of the situation is deluded. The comment you are originally referring to wasn’t a lashing. Maybe that was misunderstood. And if so that’s my fault. However there was no “ass” nature to the comment. I’m a little bit harder to piss of than that friend. There is no battle here to fight. Except the one you are trying to create. I honestly believe you are missing the point of everything I’m saying. We would appear to be having two completely different conversations. If not, please inform me of your take on the matter. As I told David I am open to discussion. That part was not sarcastic.

  23. so you think voters can tell a property owner how many cars he needs to be able to store on his property ?

    you think that’s good ?

    fair ?
    just ?

  24. I think the voters are capable of deciding what kind of local community they want, and the provision of parking is a part of that.

    I don’t think I am so smart that my personal biases and preferences should overrule what the majority want.

  25. even on your own property ?

    we are just talking about car storage in zoning laws

    and the freedom to decide how many cars to store on one’s own property

    BTW – voters have never ever voted on any zoning laws. They are usually written by unelected bureaucrats and rubber stamped by part time city councilman.

  26. Some zoning issues do go to the voters. But more generally such decisions are made by elected representatives and so there is still democratic accountability.

    I’m not aware that there is any limit to how many vehicles you can park within your property. It’s usually more a matter of how much space you have for them i.e. how big your garage is and how much private driveway you have. My home has a 6-car garage although I don’t have 6 cars. I doubt that any voters would care about that.

    The only place it applies AFAIK is with new build, where there is typically a requirement to construct sufficient off-street parking so that the street parking doesn’t become saturated.

  27. Six Private Car indoor storage for a SFD ?

    boy are you ever going to have difficulty unloading that place in a few years

  28. It’s actually a 3-unit building so it’s only 2 parking spaces per home. But I don’t let the tenants park in the garage because of rent control.

    Off-street parking makes a property considerably more valuable, which is why people often pay $100K to convert a basement into a garage.

  29. Elon Musk is just one person. I highly doubt everyone working here has need to commute between these two facilities as frequently as the CEO. You’re using Elon’s commuting habits and responsibilities to justify the behavior of everyone at his facility, and that’s just silly.

  30. A car share membership fills this niche nicely while spreading the cost of ownership out among a variety of members. You get the convenience of access for flexible time w/o the long-term costs associated.

  31. think how much more rent roll you could generate if the 1,200 sqft wasn’t devoted to car storage.

    plus the driveways

  32. I have rented out the parking spaces in the past, and received up to $300 a month in rent. However it’s a hassle as I only have 3 garage doors and so there ends up being cars blocking other cars.

    Out of curiosity, if you were given dictatorial powers, would you pass a law that prevents me from using my garage?

  33. If I could write the zoning laws they would be as follows

    1) height & setbacks defined same as today

    2) ‘offensive uses ( refinery, slaughter house, etc ) restricted to specific zones, all other uses ( commercial, retail, light manufacturing, residential ) allowed everywhere w/o restriction.

    3) no parking mandates or minimums

    4) no restriction on max number of units, because it’s covered by height and setback requirements

    The zoning laws code be written on a couple of sheets of paper along with a simple map.

    that’s respect for property owners

    On your property; You could provide as many or as few parking spaces as you deemed necessary to maximize your return. You could also configure those spaces in whatever way you thought was best.

  34. as the property owner; you know more than any bureaucrat what is best for your property.

    If you want to provide zero parking spaces that’s okay

    if you want to provide 12 spaces for 3 units – that’s fine too.

    as long as you’d fit inside the height & setback requirements it’s all good

  35. I wish that my neighborhood had a car share option. Our first local car share was originally operated by a non-profit and had a location in my neighborhood. Since they sold out to Enterprise, first the terms got worse, then they pulled out of the neighborhood and acted like the next nearest location (several miles away, a 45+ minute ride on a multi-leg transit trip) was an okay substitute.

    It was nice while we had it.

  36. Totally. There was a car-sharing company in OKC when I first started living without a vehicle, and then it went out of business. It actually made me realize how reliant on single-occupancy vehicles I was. It’s definitely better to share, but public transit is even better when properly funded.

  37. > gasoline engines would be about as common as manual transmission vehicles

    It always amazes me how ubiquitous automatic transmission is in the US (and much of the rest of the world). Here in the UK, I’d guess that about 75-90% of cars have manual transmission.

  38. BUT, my experience is these situations present themselves perhaps 1/2 dozen times each year…. if one plans ones life well.

    That means renting a car is better than owning.

    … and of course there are also the more insidious long-term factors:

    Owning a car dramatically increases the incentive to use it for a given trip (you’ve already paid for it, whether or not you use it). If you don’t own one, then the rent car vs. take public transport vs. whatever calculation for every trip is more even.

    If everybody has a strong incentive to use a car, that’s going to result in more people using cars, and encourage correspondingly lopsided societal investments in car infrastructure vs. other type of transportation structure, which in turn increasingly tips the scales in favor of car transport.

    Not owning a car is an investment in the future of the country.

  39. True – I am wondering if self driving cars will lead to significantly less VMT because of what you describe

  40. Please look at the queue at any Interstate tollbooth. Or the queue to drop off kids at school in the morning. Or the much worse queue to pick up kids from school in the afternoon.

    Then GET A CLUE!

  41. I’ll take that bet. How much do you want to bet?

    Electric car sales are growing at a rate of 50% per year and are at ~800K worldwide in 2016. There are 80 million cars sold worldwide per year.

    Plot the curve. New ICE cars go extinct roughly 12 years from now. How long does it take to eliminate the old ICE cars? Probably less than 8 years; they don’t really last that long, and when the gas stations start closing, they’ll be very undesirable to own.

    Sure, the adoption rate could slow down, but I will happily bet real money that 20 years from now (2037) a majority of the cars on the road are going to be electric.

    Key points:
    1 – it is already cheaper to “fuel” an electric car than a gas car, practically everywhere. This is true even if gas prices go to $1/gallon.
    2 – because of solar and wind power, electricity prices are actually dropping.
    3 – maintenance costs on electric cars are far lower than on gas cars.
    4 – electric cars last far longer than gas cars.
    5 – gas stations are already unprofitable — they’re loss leaders for convenience stores. When the amount of traffic to the pumps drops sufficiently, they close the pumps. I’m not quite sure what adoption level for electric cars will trigger mass waves of gas station closure (they’re already closing at about 3% per year), but when it’s hit it will accelerate the replacement of the gas car fleet.
    6 – this means that the only real obstacle to mass replacement of gas cars with electric cars is upfront purchase price. And the only things elevating the purchase price are (a) lack of economies of scale, which solves itself, and (b) the cost of batteries. The cost of batteries is going down fast.

    I don’t really want to take your money. My point is that I have researched this really, truly intensively. This is not a WAG; this is an actionable investment thesis. (In a sense I am already betting money on it, via investment choices, the first of which was selling oil stocks at the peak of the oil market in 2008. It’s working out well; they have never reclaimed their 2008 peak.)

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