I hadn’t realized that the so-called war on cars was a “Seattle thing” until I heard a broadcast about it on NPR earlier this year. Although the war on cars controversy has popped up in cities around North America, Seattle is one of just four — along with Chicago, Toronto and Boston — where the phrase gets tossed about with frequency, according to NPR. Indeed, when I Googled “war on cars,” the top results were dominated by links to Seattle-area publications. As NPR reported, “In Seattle, the phrase has been aimed at all kinds of city plans, including lower speed limits in residential areas.” Yes, in Seattle, even imposing lower speed limits in residential areas can be construed as part of a war on cars. You might say folks are a little touchy about this topic here.
Our local war on cars saw a minor skirmish earlier this week when the City Council approved a second car-sharing program, Car2Go. Zipcar will have some competition soon. Councilmember Tom Rasmussen threw down the gauntlet, as quoted by Lynn Thompson in The Seattle Times:”This is another great transportation option for people who would prefer not to own a car or want to get rid of a second car.” If there’s really a war on cars in Seattle — then them’s fightin’ words.
But calm down, Seattle motorists. If it feels like the city is trying to social-engineer you away from you car, you’ll be relieved to know that we remain quite car-centric in Seattle, despite any such efforts. According to 2012 estimates from data provider Experian, among the 75 U.S cities with populations of at least 250,000, Seattle only ranks 25th for the percent of carless households. In Seattle, a little more than 15 percent of households are carless. That’s within the top third, but just barely. And you might be surprised at some of the cities that are ahead of us. It’s not just places you’d expect like New York and San Francisco. As you can see below, it’s also Miami, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Buffalo, N.Y., among others. It’s a diverse list of cities, which reflects the diversity of reasons people might not own a car.
The chart illustrates just how wide the gap is between Seattle and the highest-ranked cities. All of the cities in the Top 10 have at least double Seattle’s percentage of households without cars. Whatever the city is doing to pry Seattleites from their cars, drivers here aren’t feeling so put upon as to actually give up their vehicles. And even though data show people are driving a little less in Seattle lately, it parallels a national trend — and the decline is quite small. The great majority of Seattleites still have cars, and they still use them.
While there are areas in Seattle that do have a very high percentage of households with no car, there are not very many of them. Out of the 129 Census tracts in the city, just eight are at the high level of carlessness you’ll find throughout New York City — that is, at 50 percent of households or above. The map on the right highlights in red where those New York-like parts of Seattle are located: South Lake Union; downtown; Pioneer Square; the International District; Yesler Terrace; and the University District.
Will having a second car-sharing program get a few more Seattleites to take the plunge into carlessness? Probably. But Seattle motorists, if you feel that your driving clout is threatened, take heart. You still rule the roost around here. This town has a long way to go before it catches up with New York City.
At the request of some readers, here is an attempt to adjust the carless data for poverty rates. I couldn’t find any good formula for how to do this, so this was more of an experiment. I subtracted 2/3rds of the percentage of households that are receiving food stamp assistance from the total percentage of carless households. I used the 2/3rds figure because that brought the poorest city, Detroit, down to almost zero percent households that are carless. Obviously it wouldn’t make any sense to go lower than zero.
I also factored in median income, which is indicated by the size of the bubbles. The vertical axis represents density. The data behind the chart can be seen by moving your cursor over each bubble.