For the first time since at least 1970, the percentage of Seattle households that own a car is declining. Census data show it’s all because of young people, who increasingly are choosing to live carless in the city.
Has Seattle reached “peak car”?
When it comes to the rate of ownership, it sure looks that way.
Census data show that from 2010 to 2015, the percentage of Seattle households that own a vehicle declined — that’s noteworthy because it’s something that hasn’t happened in decades.
I checked the data back to 1970. Car-ownership rates have creeped up every 10 years, right through to 2010. That year, 84.6 percent of city households owned at least one vehicle.
But suddenly, that number is dropping. As of 2015, it’s down by about 1 percentage point. And that’s almost entirely because of one group.
You guessed it: millennials.
At the start of this decade, someone under the age of 35 was just as likely to own a car as anyone else in Seattle. Five years later, car ownership among the city’s young had declined by about 3 percentage points.
In fact, among the 50 largest U.S. cities, none saw a bigger drop in the ownership rate among millennials in this period than Seattle.
For Seattle households headed by someone age 35 and up, there was no change in the rate of ownership.
The data suggests that young newcomers to the city are, more often than not, choosing to forgo owning a car.
It’s a combination of economics and priorities, says Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. As Seattle housing costs go through the roof, he says, cars are one expense that many young city dwellers are willing to sacrifice.
“If you get away from the high set of fixed expenses that go with owning a car — monthly payments, parking, insurance — you can pay for the apartment that allows you to live on Capitol Hill,” he said. “You can go out to bars to meet your friends, and you can get around everywhere you need to go.”
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Of course, that’s partly because it’s much easier to get by without owning a car than it used to be. Public transit has improved with light rail and King County Metro’s RapidRide, and since the start of this decade, new car-sharing (Car2Go, ReachNow) and ride-sharing (Uber, Lyft) services have debuted.
Hallenbeck says that younger people don’t place the same value on car ownership as older generations, who still rely on the automobile as a means of social connectedness. Millennials have cellphones for that. Many who live in big cities find the cost of owning a car far outweighs the benefits.
A deeper look at the numbers shows that from 2010 to 2015, under-35 households without a car in Seattle — there are more than 17,000 of them — increased at a 10 times faster rate than those that do have at least one car.
That said, cars aren’t going away anytime soon in Seattle, a city that famously loves its Subarus and Priuses. Many Seattleites, even if they don’t drive much, still want to own a set of wheels for weekend excursions.
And in terms of the raw number of cars, Seattle probably hasn’t hit its peak. Even though carless households are growing faster, households with cars are still increasing, including those that own multiple cars. These forces pushed the city’s car “population” to 435,000 in 2015.
Hallenbeck says it’s likely that many of Seattle’s carless millennials, too, will eventually purchase a car as their circumstances change: improved finances, marriage and kids, or a move to the suburbs where cars are not optional.
Even so, Seattle’s declining rate of car ownership is no fluke, Hallenbeck says, and he predicts it will continue to drop.
“As Seattle builds up these transit alternatives, the need to own a car starts to go away. And the financial incentives to get rid of your car are huge,” he said.
“Everything I see points in that direction.”