The total number of personal vehicles in Seattle hit a new high of nearly 444,000 in 2016. And about 265,000 Seattle households have at least one car, also a record. Wherever population in the city is booming, which is pretty much everywhere, so are the cars.
Some fodder for your next bar bet: How many Seattle Center-sized parking lots would it take to hold all the cars owned by Seattleites?
Answer: Seven, based on the average footprint of a personal vehicle in the U.S. — and that’s only if you pack them in bumper-to-bumper, with no room to even open the doors.
No wonder parking is such a contentious issue in this city. Not surprisingly, new legislation allowing for more parking-free development, which was passed by the Seattle City Council last week, sparked heated debate.
One of the main reasons behind reforming off-street parking requirements is to try to rein in Seattle’s sky-high rents. Each parking space adds between $25,000 and $35,000 to the cost of apartment-building construction, according to one estimate, and those costs get passed on to tenants.
While pretty much everybody agrees that rents are too high in Seattle, the folks who opposed this legislation fear that many people moving into these new apartment buildings with no off-street parking will still own cars. Street parking will become an even bigger headache than it already is.
From what I’ve heard, some of these folks cited a column I wrote last year, in which I showed that the number of cars owned or leased by Seattle residents keeps going up, and that Seattle’s car “population” is growing just as fast as its human population.
Since I wrote that column, new census data have come out showing that this trend continues. As of 2016, the total number of personal vehicles in Seattle hit a new high of nearly 444,000, a jump of about 55,000 since 2010. And about 265,000 Seattle households have at least one car, also a record.
The data show that wherever the city’s population is booming, so too are the number of cars. The central part of Seattle, between the Ship Canal and I-90, has seen the fastest increase of any section of the city. In one South Lake Union census tract, the car population has more than doubled since 2010.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold was the sole “no” vote on the legislation to ease parking requirements. As reported in The Seattle Times, one reason Herbold opposed the change is that she’s seen no evidence of decreased car ownership to warrant fewer parking spaces.
It’s true that the total number of cars in Seattle keeps climbing. But there’s more to the story than that. There is, in fact, some evidence that car ownership is decreasing.
That may sound like a contradiction, so let me explain. Census data show that no-car households are increasing more than twice as fast as households that own one or more cars. Yes, the number of car-owning households is still growing, but at a slower pace. Because of that, the percentage of households that own cars in Seattle is falling — the first time that’s happened in decades.
This is a topic I also looked at in a column last year, in which I proposed that Seattle may have hit “peak car.” Since then, new census data has come out showing that this trend is continuing.
As of 2016, just over 17 percent of Seattle households — about 55,000 of them — do not own or lease a vehicle. The share of city households without a car is now the highest that’s it been since the 1980s.
At the start of this decade, about 15.5 percent of Seattle households didn’t have a car, so that number’s gone up by about one and a half percentage points since then. That increase ranks as the fourth biggest among the 50 largest U.S. cities.
Interestingly, the declining rate of car ownership in Seattle is not part of a broader trend among large cities. In fact, only 15 cities among the 50 largest saw the share of no-car household rise in this period. Even Portland, which tends to trend in the same direction as Seattle in so many things, saw carless households drop by two percentage points.
In Seattle, it’s primarily younger adults — those under 35 — who are responsible for the declining rate of car ownership. People in this age group represent about 40 percent of Seattle’s no-car households. Census data show that nearly all of them are renters.
Most of these folks, I imagine, cheered the parking reforms passed by the City Council — rents are high enough without having to pay for an unused parking spot, after all. But opponents of the legislation are probably right that it will make on-street parking more difficult in some neighborhoods.
Perhaps it all boils down to one simple question.
What’s more important to us, as a city: housing cars, or housing people?