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Tesla employees line up in Tracy for an early-morning bus to the company's factory in Fremont. | Photo: Salgu Wissmath

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Silicon Valley's new extreme: The 2:30 a.m. tech bus from Salida

Tech employees move all the way into the Central Valley. Private tech shuttles follow.

It's 2:30 a.m. in the Central California farm town of Salida, and the only sound is the tech bus pulling into an unmarked lot surrounded by barbed wire. Men and women in work boots board in the moonlight. Next stop is 11 miles away in Manteca, and then it's another 55 miles to Fremont on the San Francisco Bay, where — an hour and a half hour later — the 4 a.m. shift at the Tesla factory starts.

Welcome to life on Silicon Valley's new frontier. When tech companies first introduced private shuttles for their employees more than a decade ago, they served the affluent neighborhoods in San Francisco and the Peninsula. Now the buses reach as far as the almond orchards of Salida and the garlic fields of Gilroy.

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Tech companies have grown tight-lipped about the specifics of their shuttle programs in the wake of high-profile protests in San Francisco. But Protocol was able to locate enough stops for company shuttles to confirm that some tech shuttles now drive all the way out to the Central Valley, an agricultural hub once a world away from the tech boom on the coast.

"That just tells you the story of the Bay Area," said Russell Hancock, president and CEO of regional think tank Joint Venture Silicon Valley. "We're going to be in these farther-flung places, and that's our reality because we're not going to be able to create affordable housing."

Tech shuttle sprawl speaks to the unique pressures that the industry has put on the region. High tech salaries have driven up housing prices in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and the East Bay, forcing white- and blue-collar workers alike to move farther away from their jobs. The crisis is compounded by anti-development politics that make it hard to build new housing and patchwork public transit systems that make it difficult for commuters to get to work without driving.

The mismatch between jobs and housing has become so extreme that Google and Facebook have proposed building thousands of apartments or condos on their own campuses.

In the meantime, those companies — plus Tesla, Apple, Netflix, LinkedIn, Genentech and others — are trying to solve the problem with long-distance buses. They all now offer shuttle service to at least the extended suburbs of the East Bay, according to interviews and reports Protocol consulted. Their longest routes now stretch north across the Golden Gate Bridge, south to the surf town of Santa Cruz, and east to the Central Valley — a total service area approaching 3,000 square miles.

"We transport more than 6,000 people on 80 routes each day," Facebook spokesman Anthony Harrison confirmed, a sharp increase since the last time the company released numbers. That includes buses to the garlic capital of Gilroy southeast of San Jose, the outer limits of the East Bay in Livermore, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco's northern suburbs in Marin County.

Google's shuttles go more than 90 miles north and south, roughly equal to the distance between Philadelphia and New York, and as far inland as the Central Valley, according to spokesman Michael Appel. One-third of the employees at Google's main Silicon Valley campuses take a shuttle each day, Appel said, penciling out to about 4 million rides per year.

Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but visits to shuttle stops and interviews on the ground show its network of buses stretches to the eastern limits of a new megaregion. These buses move employees to Tesla's 15,000-person Fremont factory, where pay starts at around $19 an hour — not enough to afford Fremont's average $2,500 rent.

Driving the shuttles pays better. One private bus driver who works for a third-party contractor and picks up Tesla factory workers in the Central Valley said he is paid just shy of $30 an hour, plus benefits including health care and a 4% match on 401(k) contributions. The driver, who also lives in the Central Valley, and asked to remain anonymous since he was not authorized to speak about his company or Tesla, said his company alone transports between 4,000 and 5,000 workers per day from the region. Tesla started picking up workers in the Central Valley in 2016, but the company has more than doubled its fleet in the region and switched to mostly double-decker buses, he said.

"This thing is getting big, and it's only gonna get bigger," the driver said. "The smallest buses that come in now are 54-seaters."

In Salida, commuter traffic in and out of the Tesla lot is gridlock by 3:30 a.m., but the only thing open for workers is a Denny's. Waitress Marnie Jones has gotten used to new Tesla hires wandering in and asking where to catch the bus, or ordering a heaping sandwich before or after a long shift.

"We get Amazon, too," Jones said. "Usually, they'll get like the Grand Slamwich or the Moons Over My Hammy, maybe a club sandwich."

The expansion of tech shuttles is part of what demographers call a budding "Northern California megaregion" that blurs the economic boundaries between the Bay Area and Sacramento. Some liken the sprawl to New York and New Jersey's bedroom community dynamic. Others, including Stockton's young Mayor Michael Tubbs, aim to translate the new wave of interest and property investment into better local jobs.

There's a long way to go to be competitive with job offers "over the hill" in Silicon Valley. The median income is more than $116,000 in Santa Clara County, where companies including Google and Apple are based, compared with just over $57,000 in Salida's Stanislaus County.

Some exurbs actively court commuters. Take Tracy, a sleepy Central Valley town just east of the Altamont Pass, now a stop along the Tesla shuttle route. Commuters can find new subdivisions with four- and five-bedroom, West Elm-style model homes that would cost over a million closer to the coast. The median home price in Tracy is just shy of $520,000, according to Zillow, a figure that has more than doubled since 2012.

Tesla worker Merna Nashed waits for an early-morning bus. Merna Nashed has worked as a production associate at Tesla since the summer of 2019. | Photo: Salgu Wissmath

Merna Nashed, 26, moved from Fremont to Tracy as a teenager, when her parents decided it made more sense to buy a house and commute than to rent in the Bay Area. As she waits for a Tesla shuttle at 4:45 a.m. near downtown Tracy, there's not a trace of light in the sky. Nashed has an English degree and has been doing general assembly work at the Tesla factory since she learned about the shuttle.

"My mom works there, too," Nashed said. "She takes the 3:51, so an hour before me."

Nashed wouldn't attempt the commute without the shuttle, she said.

But commuters who don't work for the tech companies don't have access to shuttles, even when they're making the same long commute. A few yards from where Nashed boards her Tesla shuttle, San Francisco teachers' aide Nancy Valasco waits each morning for a 5 a.m. county commuter bus, which takes her to the BART train that takes her into the Bay Area. Valasco considers her commute — about 25 hours a week — a second job, and her husband leaves even earlier for his job sorting garbage in South San Francisco. Their jobs pay the mortgage, but Valasco can't help but notice the flow of charter buses while she waits.

"They have three buses, and all double," Valasco said, eyes wide. "I just say, 'Oh my god, maybe in the future we'll have one for us.'"

Many Central-Valley-to-Silicon-Valley commuters use a mix of public transit, ride-hailing apps, scooters and bikes to get to work.

Workers wait for the bus to depart. Tom Gonchar Jr. bikes 3 miles to the ACE train in Tracy, which leaves at 6:05 a.m. | Photo: Salgu Wissmath

After a decade commuting from Tracy to San Jose, medical device engineer Tom Gonchar Jr.'s car finally gave out. Now he bikes 3 miles to the 6:05 a.m. Altamont Commuter Express train, which gets him to San Jose in an hour. He then bikes the last mile to his office. "It's just a lot more relaxing than doing the drive," he said.

Down the platform, Montez Jones is frustrated that the train is running late, again. He moved to Tracy from Daly City two decades ago and has seen his commute to AT&T's San Ramon office get more crowded as other transplants follow suit.

"They're building a lot of housing," Jones said.

"Too much," added Christina Jackson, who works in human resources for a tech company in San Jose. Her family moved to Livermore, then to Tracy, for more space. Now, she worries too many others are doing the same.

"There's no infrastructure," Jackson said. "It's at a breaking point."

Exactly how many people brave commutes as long as these isn't clear. Nor is the percentage who take shuttles. Advocates of a new proposed Central Valley light-rail system called Valley Link estimated that 82,000 commuters crossed the Altamont Pass each day in 2016. They expected that number to jump 75% by 2040. And according to data from 2014, the most recent year it was compiled, employer shuttles moved 9.6 million people for 35 companies and institutions, including Google, Salesforce, Amazon, Stanford University and UC Berkeley.

Most super commuters still drive. Michael Robinson, an eBay sales director, drives more than two hours each way from the planned community of River Islands, northeast of Tracy, to San Jose. He said it's worth it. Now his family can live in a home twice as big as they did in San Jose, and his teenage daughter attends a tech-oriented school located in the subdivision.

"The Marines teach you to suck it up and just do it," said Robinson, who served in the military after growing up in Cupertino. "You start to train your body and mind as you're going through this daily grind. This is now normal."

Robinson used to take a mix of public transit and an employee bus — until, he said, eBay decided to cut its shuttle program in January.

Early-morning traffic builds over the Altamont Pass. Traffic builds at the Altamont Pass during rush hour. | Photo: Salgu Wissmath

Cutting isn't the norm. Growth is. As of 2018, the 1,600 shuttles to and from eight of the region's biggest tech companies made them the fifth-largest transit provider in the Bay Area, a Joint Venture Silicon Valley survey found. Facebook's new campus in Menlo Park has a bus depot on the ground floor, complete with a contracted professional fleet and drivers, route schedules and light-up sign boards.

"It feels like a big-city bus terminal," said Hancock, the CEO of the regional think tank, who visited last year. "I realized for the first time that Facebook wasn't doing this as a little add-on. They've created a bus system that's significant."

Hancock was there to get numbers. He'd convened eight large tech companies and elected officials to share concrete details on their shuttle programs and other transit initiatives. Beyond buses, they found that companies offer pre-tax transit subsidies up to $260 a month, vanpools to areas not served by buses, car- and bike-sharing programs, private ferries, and one-on-one commute counseling. At some companies, one part of these counselors' job is to reveal where exactly shuttle stops are located, since not even employees are allowed to see the entire system.

Multiple public officials suggested that the Bay Area's many public transit agencies could learn a thing or two from private shuttle networks. But public transit advocates and tech companies have both been vocal in arguing that shuttles are an expensive Band-Aid for policymakers' inability, or unwillingness, to make a meaningful dent in its glaring housing shortage and outdated mass transit. They worry it not only makes local lives more difficult, but puts the Bay Area at a disadvantage compared with economic rivals like China.

"We're looking at, I think, 27 different transit agencies in this region now," said Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty. "That's too many."

Groups like Hancock's and Seamless Bay Area, which aims to encourage more regional planning collaboration, are working on solutions. Haggerty saw similar efforts bubble up during the last dot-com boom. He said many of the obstacles that got in the way then remain.

The prospect of longer-term, larger-scale transportation upgrades is uncertain. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom halted a planned high-speed rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco through the Central Valley, though construction continues on a smaller section through agricultural hub Fresno. Costs had ballooned, from $60 billion to nearly $100 billion.

Bay Area officials are debating numerous competing transit proposals to ease the commuting woes, such as building the new Central Valley train line that would link to BART, expanding the existing ACE train or expanding bus lines.

"People don't want to cede local control," Haggerty said. "The no-growthers will win every time." That much was evident last week when, for the third year in a row, the California Senate voted against a measure to drastically increase the amount of housing permitted near transit hubs.

Workers board a bus in Pleasanton marked for Sunnyvale, where Apple has a large campus. | Photo: Salgu Wissmath

In the meantime, the commutes just keep getting longer. By the time the sun rises over the Altamont Pass, red brake lights snake past cows and windmills that dot the hills marking the gateway to the Bay Area.

A few miles into Alameda County, a fairgrounds parking lot has been transformed into a massive park-and-ride operation. A laundry list of tech companies — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and others — send shuttles here or nearby train stations, according to a report prepared for the Alameda County Transportation Commission. Around 7 a.m., people in puffy jackets and backpacks jog to a silver bus with its destination displayed as Wolfe Road in Sunnyvale, where Apple has a large campus.

When and where to create stops like this one is often a bottom-up decision, said Harrison of Facebook.

"Once we have enough employees in an area that can fill up a bus, we explore the potential to create a competitive bus service from that area," Harrison said. "In general, we avoid competition with public transit until the sheer number of people in that area reaches a critical mass."

By early afternoon, all is calm in Tracy. Construction workers hammer stakes into soil and install solar panels on new homes being marketed to tech commuters. Down the block, though, a big yellow billboard offers an alternative: For those willing to go 60 miles farther south, to Los Banos, houses are selling for $200,000.

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