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Balk: Seattle car ownership is down, but it’s up in places you’d least expect

K. Potts / The Seattle Times. Used with permission. Click for interactive graphic.
K. Potts / The Seattle Times. Used with permission. Click for interactive graphic.

You almost cannot stand anywhere in the city center or Capitol Hill without seeing construction cranes. The number of residences in these walkable, bikeable and transit-rich areas is rising fast. It’s clear that people want to live where they have more transportation options.

But analysis by Gene Balk at The Seattle Times found something interesting: The population growth is outpacing car ownership growth in nearly all of King County, but not in the Seattle city center.

First, a note about the data. The map compares the percent change in the adult (18+) population to percent change in car ownership by zip code between 2010 and 2013. The city center zip codes had the lowest car ownership rates in the region. So while it would take a lot of new residents to grow the population percent change, it takes relatively little growth in car ownership to register as a big percent change.

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But it’s still a little troubling to see such growth in car ownership in the exact areas of the city where living car-free is easiest.

The growth in center city cars is due to gentrification. People who have the means for a car are much more likely to have one, even in an area where you don’t need one. Since so many of the new residences in the city center are pricey, a disproportionate number of new residents have cars. And the negatives of car ownership do not yet outweigh the benefits for a lot of people, even if they let their cars sit for long periods of time.

Balk spoke with one Capitol Hill resident who sums things up pretty well:

One factor, certainly, is the influx of young professionals who have the means to own a car.

For Holly Robins, 33, of Capitol Hill, the decision to buy a car was work-related. When the graphic designer took a contract job in Kirkland, she initially tried commuting by bus, but found the transit schedules didn’t jibe with her work hours.

So Robins bought a car — and she still owns it, even though she no longer commutes to the Eastside. A self-described “nature nerd,” Robins says, “not having a car sometimes made me feel like I was stuck in the city.” Although she admits that street parking on Capitol Hill can be a challenge, she still feels the benefits of car ownership outweigh the negatives.

As much as people complain about parking on Capitol Hill and downtown, there are still ample spaces for storing cars. Many residences have “free” parking spaces, and you can still find free street parking if you look hard enough.

That free parking is not actually free, of course. Every parking stall built in a new development’s garage adds cost (underground parking garages are insanely expensive) and reduces rentable space. You pay for that increase in your apartment’s rent or when you shop, eat or play in the building’s retail spaces. The same lack of affordable housing that drives the increase in gentrification also subsidizes car ownership for the new, more affluent residents.

Yes, this is backwards, and it doesn’t need to be this way. Obviously, car parking is not the only cause of gentrification, but it’s part of it. Balk’s map is a sign that the city needs to do a lot more to encourage (or mandate) developers to trade parking spaces for affordable housing. Because a lot more people are going to move to Seattle, and we should be ready to welcome them all regardless of income … but maybe not their cars.

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19 responses to “Balk: Seattle car ownership is down, but it’s up in places you’d least expect”

  1. Jeff Dubrule

    I wonder what percentage of this is an influx of residents from other cities, who already have cars. When the two of us moved up from LA, 6 years ago, we had 2 cars (because that’s what you do in LA), and it was 5 years before we reduced that to 1, because we never drove either very much.
    Capitol Hill seems like a place that gets a lot of transplants, who maybe move off the hill when they feel like settling down.

    1. Andres Salomon

      Yep, this. I have quite a few friends from other states who’ve moved here in the past few years for well-paying jobs. They’ve moved from car-centric places. Of course they’ve brought their car, just like I did almost a decade ago when I originally moved to Boston* from car-centric upstate NY. After a few years of city living and not using the car (assuming Metro doesn’t disintegrate, light rail construction continues, and car share keeps getting better and better), a large portion of them will get rid of them. We can accelerate this process by making it a pain to store cars.

      * Between snowy weather and density, Boston/Cambridge/Somerville does a great job of disincentivizing car ownership. During a snow storm, you need to move it every 12 hours or get towed. Parking spots are few and far between. Road salt quickly eats away at cars. I think my car lasted a year, and at least a few towings before I got rid of it in frustration. I was only using it on the occasional weekend.

  2. Gene Balk

    I didn’t have room to go into this in the article, but just fyi, the 5 zip codes with the lowest rates of car ownership in 2013:

    98104: Pioneer Sq./ID/First Hill
    98105: (U-District, Laurelhurst)
    98121: Belltown
    98101: Downtown/First Hill
    98122: CD/Madrona/Capitol Hill

  3. Virchow

    I think part of this phenomenon is also that many (most?) folks in Cap Hill or Bell Town are single. When my wife and I were single we each had a car, mostly for reasons outlined in this article. I didn’t need it for day-to-day but it was great for a trip to the mountains, when I needed to move, or whatever. And it was paid off. She uses hers everyday because that’s how she rolls. Now we have one car because I bike/walk and bus almost everywhere. Its a pretty ideal set up for both of us. I suspect single living and the difficulty involved in shared ownership outside of legal partnership (marriage) prevents a lot of folks from car-sharing.

    Maybe some of the car-share programs of San Fran will move North to solve this issue of misaligned incentives.

    1. Becky

      Which car sharing programs from San Fran? Seattle has a pretty big ZipCar program and car2go is here but NOT in San Fran yet.

      That said, you’re right that car sharing programs, enabled by the internet and smart phones and RFID and other fancy things, totally help realign incentives to encourage people not to own vehicles. Worked for me.

  4. Stuart

    That quote about forgetting where she parked probably contains some degree of hyperbole. But it has a grain of truth for many. That people are utilizing free spaces for such long term storage that they would have trouble remembering where they parked really gets my goat. Treating free spaces as trivial entitlements conflicts with the fight residents and business put up against advocates trying to turn those underutilized spaces into useful street features. The cognitive dissonance is astounding to me.

    The city should be expanding parking maximums and metered parking to a greater portion of Capitol Hill.

    1. Peri Hartman

      You realize there is a 72 hour parking limit in areas without specific restrictions. The city tends not to enforce it but I believe they will if someone complains. In dense areas where there isn’t enough parking on a daily basis, it makes sense to let them know that someone is unfairly using a space.

      I’m guilty of doing that in my neighborhood – QA – but, so far, there’s enough parking that it doesn’t matter too much. At some point, if parking becomes scarce (too many cars or roadway repurposed), I may have to get rid of the car or pay for parking. When that time comes, making that decision will be fine with me.

  5. Josh

    This isn’t really surprising, car ownership tends to increase with income, even for people who live mostly car-free urban lifestyles.

    Increased development actually makes this easier, since many older areas of the city don’t have enough parking for the residents who would already prefer to own a car, while new development generally faces mandatory minimum parking requirements.

    At the same time, the convenience of urban living may mean much lower average use for those cars — garages full of cars that rarely get driven, because people who can afford it like the convenience of having a car handy for longer trips, and they have a parking space for it whether they want it or not.

    While I don’t live downtown, my own two-driver household certainly wouldn’t have three cars if we didn’t have plenty of free parking on-site. One of those cars hasn’t moved 1,000 miles in the past year, one of them has barely 3,000 miles, one of them is actually used as a daily commuter. But the cost of the extra cars is minimal, so keeping them is more convenient than not having them.

    Its too bad there aren’t reliable data for car usage instead of just ownership; I suspect that would show a much different pattern downtown.

  6. Zach Shaner

    I bet the cars in Capitol Hill/Downtown etc sit parked at a higher rate than your average vehicle. I know I’m not the only one who keeps a car on Capitol Hill but only drives it on weekends. Lots of us walk/bike/bus to work and for everyday errands but can’t rely on infrequent transit during evenings and weekends. I’d switch to a carfree lifestyle if parking weren’t still so cheap and abundant, which makes it cheaper (thanks hidden subsidies!) to own a car. In 2 months on Capitol Hill I’ve never had to park more than 2 blocks away, and I live a block off Broadway.

    1. Capitol Hillian

      Ditto. My car just sits around for free on the crowded streets of Capitol Hill waiting for weekend excursions. I have no incentive to do otherwise.

      And Stuart, I’m not sure that is hyperbole. I frequently forget where my car is parked because I rarely park in the same place twice and often park up to 5 blocks away.

      1. Jessica

        I also don’t think it’s hyperbole- I have forgotten where my car is parked several times. That’s because I generally bike to work and only drive for weekend outings or sometimes for random weeknight activities. I could pay $100/month for an indoor parking spot in my apartment building, but since street parking is available when I need it, I don’t have an incentive to.

        I don’t really see this as cognitive dissonance– if the city were to convert all street parking into bike lanes, that would be cool, and I would willingly pay $100/month for off-street parking or get rid of my car, but as long as there is free car parking available on my street, it makes sense for me to use it.

  7. Bryan Willman

    There’s a bias in this post (which you are open about) which I think runs contrary what society as a whole generally thinks.

    To wit: Most people in the US (and likely the world), like cars, and would like to have one.

    You talk about people “not needing a car” because of where they live and having one anyway. This really carries no more water than saying “Seattle is an interesting place, you don’t need a TV, but many people still have TVs.”

    What’s more, saying that “you don’t need a car to live in area X” borders on irrelevent for more people than not. Why? Because in the real world people want, or even need, to leave area X on a regular basis, and go to places where mass transit either doesn’t exist or is so inefficient as to be impractical. (Weekend trips to the mountains.)

    You complain that “free” parking for apartments is really costly (very true) and yet, do we not see this cost in the rental rates for apartments with and without parking? And do apartments without parking not have a more difficult time getting tenants at a given rental rate?

    In other words, the markets speak – people really really like/want/need cars.

    You and others complain that “free” parking is never really free – that’s true. But the roads are not free, the bridges are not free, and so on. Neither car owners nor cyclists pay for roads or bridges by any kind of meaningful tax on the vehicle – that virtually all comes out of property and sales tax. What does come from vehicles comes from gas taxes and at least my bicycles don’t burn gas.

    In short, while perhaps interesting, I don’t think these statistics really illuminate anything at all about policy, demographics, etc. They just suggest that Seattle is getting richer.

    [I own and ride multiple bicycles. I love them. I also love my cars…]

    1. Jeffrey J. Early

      I agree with your larger point that cars are very liberating at times and this is may be a sign of Seattle getting richer, but I quibble with the ‘the markets speak’ comment.

      The problem is that markets don’t speak at all on the issue of parking or roads—both are highly regulated and are not free markets. For example, most cities have parking minimums which create an abundance of parking spots, whether developers want them or not. An abundance of parking spots makes driving more attractive than it otherwise might be, if truly left to the free market. This is similarly true with roads. A free market road would gather funding for capital cost construction and pay for itself with tolls, but again this is not something we see. Roads are made because governments decide to put them there, sometimes without reason. Once the roads are there (and typically not tolled), that incentivizes driving (e.g., I seriously doubt a freeway from Seattle to Redmond could have been free market funded, but once it was there, why not use it?).

      Don’t take this to mean that I don’t think governments should pay for transportation—I do—I just don’t think it’s fair to say that the free market has much to do with our current state transportation choices.

      1. Bryan Willman

        Part A – yes, you are right. All sorts of libertarian thinkers more or less agree with you. And governments everywhere blunder into these messes – start out with free parking, then that gets too busy so require developers to build spaces, then decide you want fewer cars to make free parking at work illegal, and then watch various businesses leave your screwed jurisdiction.
        To some extent complaining about roads and cars (and bicycles and trains and planes!) is like complaining about the amount of your body devoted to blood vessels.

        Part B – I’ve come to think that the “it’s not a market” issue doesn’t matter (in spite of very strong libertarian leanings) – because society actually makes very heavy use of what I’ll call “compelled going along”. By this I mean, for all sorts of things, we not only don’t charge for specific use, we also don’t let you opt out. And so, if very large numbers of people decide to stop driving at all, and thus pay no fuel taxes, a very likely result is that some new tax (say a poll tax of some kind) will appear. Because a large enough segment of society requires roads and they will basically coerce everybody else into helping to pay for them. There are actualy all sorts of things like that in society and roads are perhaps one of the least egregious examples.

        What does that have to do with the current thread? I repeat – I think the sorts of statistics quoted here are of only passing interest and do not inform policy, advocacy, or anything else – except perhaps to remind us that cars are a very very entrenched force in society.

    2. Gene Balk

      Bryan – I agree that this data suggests that the central areas of Seattle are getting richer. That’s certainly part of the story, as I mention in the article. But if car ownership were only correlated with wealth, we’d see the highest rates in our richest cities –Manhattan, San Francisco, D.C., etc. Instead, those cities have the lowest rates of car ownership. I think there is more to it than just that.

  8. mjd

    If the desire is to have less car ownerships this city has GOT to build a viable rapid transit network. When people can easily get anywhere they want to go without a car they’ll be less likely to have one.

  9. SGG

    Why on earth is it “troubling” that these neighborhoods are attracting people who now likely have higher incomes and therefore are more likely to own a car? It isn’t “troubling” to me in the least. I don’t care if people who can afford to, buy one or more cars, and select housing with parking to meet that need. What I find “troubling” is when we can’t as a community that bicycles and advocates for such, find a way to do so without simultaneously advocating against car ownership.

    You aren’t winning anyone over with such language and it really adds to the oft-criticized “war on cars” dialogue.

  10. Ted

    Seattle bike blog may be the only news source in town where I can read the comments and become more informed. And not angry. Thanks for having an interesting, civil conversation. Except for the previous post, anyway.

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