When it comes to car ownership, Seattle has finally turned a corner.
Census data released last month shows the city’s car-ownership rate has dropped dramatically in the past several years. In the new estimates, about 81% of Seattle households owned at least one vehicle in 2018 — that’s the lowest rate since the 1980s.
And that number is down by 3 percentage points just since 2010, which is a tremendous change in less than 10 years. In fact, among the 50 most-populous U.S. cities, Seattle’s drop in its car-ownership rate is the biggest, and by a wide margin.
We now rank 11th among the 50 largest cities for the percentage of car-free households. Since 2010, we’ve leapfrogged Miami, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Oakland, California.
What makes Seattle’s nation-leading drop in car ownership even more remarkable is that only 11 of the 50 largest cities saw any decline at all. And in most of our “peer” cities — those with similar demographics — the rate of car ownership has actually bumped up since the start of the decade: Portland, San Francisco, Denver, Boston, Austin, and Minneapolis. (The exception is Washington, D.C., which saw a decline of less than one percentage point).
One reason, surely, is that we’ve invested more than any other region in transit, and as a result, we’ve led the nation in ridership growth. Significant improvements in transit, including the light-rail line that opened in 2009, have made it a lot easier to get by without owning a car.
Another factor: Seattle has experienced tremendous population growth since 2010, and due to strict zoning laws, the vast majority of that growth has been concentrated in a handful of high-density areas that are walkable and transit-rich. That means a greater share of city residents live in neighborhoods where they have the option of forgoing car ownership and instead relying on transit, walking, biking and car-share services.
And so, the benefits of owning a car no longer outweigh the costs and the hassle for an increasing number of Seattleites. There are now nearly 64,000 households in Seattle that do not own a car, a 46% increase since 2010.
To be sure, that’s still just 19% of the city’s households — we’re a long way off from New York City, where 55% are car-free.
Younger and older people in Seattle are much less likely to own a car than folks in the middle. For households headed by someone under age 35, or by someone 65 and older, nearly one-quarter do not own a car. That number drops to 13% for households headed by someone 35 to 64.
There’s something else of interest in the new census data. It also shows that the total number of cars owned by Seattleites could finally be leveling off.
It may sound paradoxical, but in recent years, the number of cars in Seattle has spiked, even though the percentage of households that own a car has declined. That’s because car-owning households have still increased (though at a slower rate), including those that own multiple vehicles.
But not last year. The numbers were flat between 2017 and 2018, both for households with one car and for households with multiple cars.
In 2018, Seattle households owned about 457,000 vehicles — that’s basically unchanged from the 2017 estimate (461,000).
Granted, that is still an awful lot of cars crammed into the city’s 84 square miles of land area, and a huge increase from 2010, when the total number of vehicles was about 389,000.
Also, it’s only one year’s worth of data, so it’s far too soon to call it a trend. Even so, it’s still a welcome change from recent years, in which Seattle’s car “population” grew at the same pace as its human population.
In a 2017 column, I first reported on a small decline in Seattle’s car-ownership rates, reversing decades of increases. At that time, I asked, “Has Seattle reached ‘peak car’?”
With the release of new data showing that the trend has only accelerated, and I believe we now have a definitive answer to that question: Yes.