Seattle has finally reached peak car, and only one other densely populated U.S. city has more cars per capita

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Seattle has finally reached peak car, and only one other densely populated U.S. city has more cars per capita

A few years ago, at the height of Seattle’s historic population boom, I wrote about a notable trend: our city was adding cars as quickly as people.

This trend seems to be over, at least for the time being. Census data shows that the “population” of automobiles in Seattle – the number of vehicles owned or leased by city residents – has finally flattened.

For most of the last decade, the vehicle population in Seattle grew extremely rapidly. In 2010, the city’s residents had around 389,000 cars in total. The number kept growing every year and by 2017 we had reached 461,000 cars.

And then it just stopped like that. The number of vehicles in the city has not decreased, but it has not increased either. It’s around 460,000 by 2019 based on the latest available census data.

That didn’t happen because the population stopped growing. From 2017 to 2019, Seattle gained around 25,000 people.

So what has changed?

The answer surprised me: It’s homeowners, not tenants, who are behind the trend.

From 2017 to 2019, the total number of homeowner cars decreased by nearly 17,000. The number of rental cars rose almost equally. These two changes basically canceled each other out and the vehicle population remained stable.

It’s not like homeowners suddenly drop their cars, although there has been a surge in car-free condominiums (most likely, these are condominium and townhouse owners who live in the densely populated neighborhoods of Seattle).

However, the data suggests that Seattle homeowners are more likely to get by with a single car lately than two or more. Another factor is that the total number of Seattle condominiums has not increased in recent years.

By contrast, the number of tenant households has increased – in fact, Seattle recently became a city with the majority of tenants. And while renting households without a car are growing the fastest, the raw number of renting households that have one or more cars has still risen sharply.

Of course, homeowners still own or lease the majority of vehicles in Seattle – they have roughly 265,000 of them, while renters have 195,000. And only 4% of condominiums are car-free, compared to 31% of tenant households.

However we got there, it’s good that the auto population in Seattle has stabilized for now. It’s not just because more cars mean more traffic jams and more pollution. Even when not in use, cars take up a lot of space. Parking problems are a major headache in many parts of the city.

There is no getting around the fact that Seattle is very dependent on cars for a large and densely populated city.

Just look at the number of cars per capita. We have 460,000 cars for a population of roughly 750,000. That is 610 cars per 1,000 inhabitants.

Some other US cities that we consider demographically similar – San Francisco, Boston, Washington, DC – all have much lower car-to-people ratios than Seattle. We even have more cars per capita than Los Angeles. New York is, of course, the lowest of the big cities at just 239 cars per 1,000.

In fact, of the 10 most populous US cities, only one has more cars per capita than Seattle: Long Beach, California, with 621 cars per 1,000 residents.

However, the densely populated neighborhoods of Seattle have a much lower rate of car owners than the citywide average. The Chinatown-International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods have a similar number of cars per capita as New York. Parts of First Hill, the University District, and downtown Seattle are slightly higher.

On the other side of the spectrum, a Seattle neighborhood has almost as many cars as people. In the Arroyo Heights / Endolyne region of West Seattle, there are 922 cars for every 1,000 residents.

Seattle has the lowest number of cars per capita of any of Washington’s largest cities. In Bellevue there are 662 own or leased cars for every 1,000 residents. Tacoma, Spokane, and Vancouver are all higher than 700.

With the latest 2019 data in place, one question remains: Has the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in remote working impacted vehicle ownership rates in Seattle? We’ll have to wait for the 2020 census data to find out.