After more thought, it dawned on me that the chargers aren’t for the locals. They were installed in my quiet northern California community for people traveling through from more urban centers, such as San Francisco and Palo Alto.
When the supercharger installation was proposed, Ukiah’s City Council had some concerns about allowing Tesla to install them downtown. There was concern about having a “billboard” of sorts, advertising only for Tesla, and some council members didn't want to maintain chargers that would not serve any other electric car. Further, these chargers would take up otherwise public parking spaces right downtown. Tesla was not interested in any other location, however, and it argued that the chargers would bring additional shoppers to the community. Petaluma, another northern California town, installed Tesla Chargers and saw about 1000 users per month, which translates into an added $12,000 to the local economy. Tesla paid for the installation and continues to pay for the electricity they use, so financially the installation and maintenance would not be an issue.
Eventually, after some debate, Tesla’s proposal passed in Ukiah, but only narrowly. The Mayor, Doug Crane, argued in favor of the chargers, saying that the city needed to make a “leap of faith” in order to support the growing business of electric cars. Indeed, Teslas are environmentally friendly, but they are also expensive. With available models priced between $68,000 and $138,000, the choice to purchase a Tesla is not an option to just any passionate environmentalist. Ukiah has a median household income of $42,237, and 39.26% of the population makes $30,000 or less per year. Hence, purchasing a Tesla is not a decision that most Ukiah residents are able to make, regardless of their commitment to the environment.
After the debate and approval in the City Council, Tesla forum users held an online discussion about Ukiah and the concerns both the public and council members raised about the superchargers. One user called the resistant city council members “ignorant” and chastised the opposition to the superchargers, saying: “This will be the biggest draw in their city, they should be paying Tesla for the privilege of having it.” Another forum attracted similar comments. “Perhaps money spent elsewhere would be better rewarded.” Said another user, “Never been there and now we certainly won’t.” Additionally, yet another user speculated that the parking spots were used by employees from surrounding businesses, and wondered why those employees couldn’t just park elsewhere and walk a little farther to work. This user callously said: “I wonder what the obesity rate is in Ukiah.” Still another user wrote: “Unenlightened people resent the incentives granted to encourage adoption of [electric vehicles]. I thank the visionaries… for leading the way.”
These were not the only unkind comments about Ukiah locals on the Tesla forums. Perhaps these users are just trolling, and I shouldn't take them seriously. I must point out, however, that just because locals were concerned about Tesla's superchargers in Ukiah does not mean that they are against electric vehicles, innovation, or environmentalism. Similarly, those who opposed the superchargers are not automatically “unenlightened.” To some, Tesla as a company may even symbolize an affluent group of people who have more resources than those in Ukiah do, there may even be a fear that the Ukiah community could be looked down on. All this is to say: this issue is about more than just a few parking spaces. There are a lot of possibilities that could lead someone to oppose Tesla's proposal, many of them specific to the values and the identity of the community.