A few years ago, during the height of Seattle’s historic population boom, I wrote about a remarkable trend: Our city was adding cars as fast as people.
That trend appears to be over, at least for now. Census data shows that Seattle’s car “population” — the number of vehicles owned or leased by city residents — has finally leveled off.
For most of the last decade, Seattle’s vehicle population grew at an extraordinary rate. In 2010, city residents had about 389,000 cars in total. The number kept going up each year, and by 2017, we’d hit 461,000 cars.
And then, just like that, it stopped. While the number of vehicles in the city hasn’t gone down, it hasn’t gone up either. It’s stayed right around 460,000 through 2019, based on the most recently available census data.
That hasn’t happened because the population stopped growing. From 2017 to 2019, Seattle gained about 25,000 people.
So what changed?
The answer surprised me: It’s homeowners, not renters, who are behind the trend.
From 2017 to 2019, the total number of cars belonging to homeowners declined by nearly 17,000. The number of cars belonging to renters increased by almost the same amount. These two changes basically canceled each other out, and the car population remained steady.
It’s not that homeowners are suddenly ditching their cars, although there has been an uptick in car-free owner-occupied homes (most likely, these are condominium and townhome owners living in Seattle’s high-density neighborhoods).
But the data suggests that Seattle homeowners have recently become more likely to make do with a single car instead having two or more. Another contributing factor is that the total number of owner-occupied homes in Seattle hasn’t increased for the past several years.
The number of renter households, on the other hand, has surged — in fact, Seattle recently became a renter-majority city. And while renter households without a car are increasing at the fastest rate, there’s still been a bump in the raw number of renter households that do have one or more cars.
To be sure, homeowners still own or lease the bulk of the vehicles in Seattle — they have about 265,000 of them, while renters have 195,000. And only 4% of owner-occupied households are car-less, compared with 31% of renter households.
However we got there, it’s a good thing that the car population of Seattle has stabilized for now. That’s not just because more cars equals more traffic congestion and pollution. Even when they’re not being used, cars take up a lot of space. Parking issues are a big headache in many neighborhoods.
There’s no getting around the fact that Seattle is, for a large and densely populated city, very car-dependent.
Just look at per capita number of cars. We have 460,000 cars for a population of about 750,000. That pencils out to 610 cars for every 1,000 residents.
Some other U.S. cities that we think of as demographically similar — San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C. — all have a much lower ratio of cars to people than Seattle. We even have more cars per capita than Los Angeles. New York, of course, is lowest among major cities, with just 239 cars per 1,000.
In fact, among the 10 most densely populated major U.S. cities, only one has more cars per capita than Seattle: Long Beach, California, which has 621 cars for every 1,000 residents.
That said, Seattle’s densely populated neighborhoods have much lower rates of car ownership than the citywide average. The Chinatown-International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods have similar numbers of cars per capita to New York. Parts of First Hill, the University District, and downtown Seattle are just a little higher.
At the other of the spectrum, one Seattle neighborhood has nearly as many cars as people. In the Arroyo Heights/Endolyne area in West Seattle, there are 922 cars for every 1,000 residents.
Among Washington’s largest cities, Seattle has the lowest number of cars per capita. In Bellevue, there are 662 owned or leased cars for every 1,000 residents. Tacoma, Spokane and Vancouver are all higher than 700.
Because the most recent data is for 2019, there remains an unanswered question: Has the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rise of remote work, had any effect on car ownership rates in Seattle? We’ll have to wait for the 2020 census data to find out.