[UPDATE: To be clear, the Seattle MSA includes the entirety of Snohomish, Pierce, and King Counties. Below, I argue that the considerable hinterlands in that sample aren’t of much relevance, but that’s the scope.]

The traditional measure of density isn’t very informative about whether a city can really support heavy transit use and gain the other benefits of people packed in. Dividing population by area is highly sensitive to how you define the area. Municipal boundaries are arbitrary, and a vast hinterland can obscure a dense and vital core city.

A method that overcomes this problem is population-weighted density, which counts the local density around each person and averages it over all the residents in an area. Although not without its own problems, the average is less impacted by large unpopulated areas, largely eliminating boundary games. And now, the U.S. Census Bureau has given us detailed Metro area data. Here are the Bureau’s national summary slides.

This spreadsheet provides the raw numbers. Of the 366 “Metropolitan Statistical Areas” the Census Bureau tabulated, in the 2010 census Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue came 24th in population-weighted density at 4721.6 people per square mile , although it’s 15th in overall population at 3.4m people. The cities ahead of us include obvious ones, like Chicago and Boston, and sunbelt cities few people think of as dense, such as Las Vegas and San Diego.

On the other hand, greater Seattle is densifying quickly: up 247/sq.mi. in population-weighted density since the 2000 census, 17th overall. Only two metro areas of over a million people scored higher, and they’re both smaller and also less dense: Virginia Beach (+495) and Portland (+378). Cities bigger than us are generally shrinking and/or spreading out.

For all the rhetoric about the Manhattanization of Puget Sound, it’s striking how much room there is to grow before we approach East Coast levels of claustrophobia. A 78% increase in weighted density would bring us merely to San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, which no one would compare to Central Paris. It would still be well below Los Angeles and San Francisco, to say nothing of New York.

The 50 densest cities from the spreadsheet are below the jump.

Geographic area Area (sq mi.)
Population weighted density
Population 2010 2000 2010 Change, 2000 to 2010
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 18,897,109 6,686.9 31,683.6 31,251.4 -432.2
San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 4,335,391 2,470.5 12,438.4 12,144.9 -293.4
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 12,828,837 4,848.5 12,442.0 12,113.9 -328.1
Honolulu, HI 953,207 600.7 10,977.5 11,548.2 570.7
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 9,461,105 7,196.8 9,829.6 8,613.4 -1,216.2
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 1,836,911 2,678.8 8,300.4 8,417.7 117.3
Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 4,552,402 3,487.4 7,912.2 7,980.1 67.9
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 5,965,343 4,602.1 8,064.3 7,773.2 -291.1
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 5,564,635 5,077.3 7,236.6 7,395.3 158.7
San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 3,095,313 4,206.6 7,094.4 6,920.5 -173.9
Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 1,951,269 7,891.4 6,781.8 6,527.2 -254.6
Salinas, CA 415,057 3,280.6 6,735.2 6,402.3 -332.9
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 5,582,170 5,598.3 6,251.8 6,388.1 136.3
Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta, CA 423,895 2,735.1 6,041.4 6,242.8 201.4
Trenton-Ewing, NJ 366,513 224.6 5,783.5 5,864.6 81.1
Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA 823,318 1,843.1 5,218.3 5,542.2 323.9
Baltimore-Towson, MD 2,710,489 2,601.5 5,890.9 5,435.7 -455.2
Laredo, TX 250,304 3,361.5 5,923.6 5,300.1 -623.5
Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 1,555,908 1,454.8 5,454.8 5,257.6 -197.2
Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT 916,829 624.9 4,923.2 5,122.4 199.2
Stockton, CA 685,306 1,391.3 5,197.5 4,889.1 -308.4
Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO 2,543,482 8,346.1 5,076.6 4,803.7 -272.9
Providence-New Bedford-Fall River, RI-MA 1,600,852 1,586.9 4,890.8 4,763.7 -127.1
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 3,439,809 5,872.3 4,474.3 4,721.6 247.3
Reading, PA 411,442 856.5 4,316.3 4,656.8 340.5
Salt Lake City, UT 1,124,197 9,555.3 4,738.4 4,563.5 -174.9
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA 262,382 445.2 4,479.6 4,553.7 74.1
Sacramento–Arden-Arcade–Roseville, CA 2,149,127 5,094.2 4,584.3 4,538.5 -45.8
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA 413,344 821.8 4,883.4 4,502.1 -381.4
Champaign-Urbana, IL 231,891 1,921.1 4,043.9 4,405.2 361.3
Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 4,192,887 14,565.8 5,028.4 4,394.9 -633.4
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 2,226,009 6,683.7 3,994.4 4,372.6 378.2
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 1,167,764 2,960.2 6,118.9 4,370.2 -1,748.7
State College, PA 153,990 1,109.9 4,106.6 4,366.2 259.6
Modesto, CA 514,453 1,494.8 4,301.8 4,322.7 21.0
El Paso, TX 800,647 1,012.7 4,521.0 4,318.3 -202.7
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 4,224,851 27,263.4 4,060.4 4,299.6 239.2
Provo-Orem, UT 526,810 5,395.7 4,781.3 4,270.3 -510.9
Fresno, CA 930,450 5,958.0 4,168.7 4,216.1 47.4
Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY 1,135,509 1,565.1 4,601.5 4,129.4 -472.1
Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 5,946,800 8,827.5 4,258.4 4,109.6 -148.8
Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC 1,671,683 2,629.6 3,589.3 4,084.1 494.8
Napa, CA 136,484 748.4 3,739.2 4,045.9 306.7
New Haven-Milford, CT 862,477 604.5 3,926.9 4,007.4 80.5
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 6,371,773 8,927.5 4,295.2 3,909.3 -385.9
Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ 821,173 1,453.2 3,643.6 3,889.3 245.7
Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH 2,077,240 1,997.3 4,581.7 3,808.4 -773.3
Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 4,296,250 3,888.4 4,534.2 3,800.4 -733.9
Lincoln, NE 302,157 1,409.0 3,939.9 3,748.0 -192.0
Reno-Sparks, NV 425,417 6,565.3 4,268.8 3,714.7 -554.1

91 Replies to “Population-Weighted Density: How Seattle Stacks Up”

  1. “For all the rhetoric about the Manhattanization of Puget Sound, it’s striking how much room there is to grow before we approach East Coast levels of claustrophobia.”

    I guess that says it all. Let’s just keep packing people in smaller, denser apartments until we’ve reached a level of claustrophobia that makes Seattle no longer a desirable place to live. There is always new territory to move on to and foul.

    1. Actually, it is the concerted effort to avoid East Coast densities that causes new territory to be fouled. That’s what sprawl is all about — fouling vast areas with ultra-low densities of people and uses that could be packed much more tightly without affecting the perception of crowding at all. Density and overcrowding are two completely separate things, usually not found together.

      In fact, as the table makes clear, it’s not “East Coast densities” we’re avoiding here in Seattle; it’s sprawling West Coast auto-dependent densities. We’re behind San Jose, for Chrissakes. SAN JOSE. Have you ever been there? It’s a city without a center, gridded out by a network of vast eight-lane streets with oceans of pavement between them. They do have a lot of apartment districts, though — but it is mostly single-family houses on large lots — and yet it’s denser than here. LAS VEGAS is denser than here. I’m really, really surprised to see SJ and LV rank this high.

  2. Very interesting. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how quintessentially “sprawl-y” places like San Jose, greater Miami, and Vegas rank so much higher than Seattle in this. Is it that the single family suburbs of these places generally have fewer people in each household compared to Seattle? Is there a bigger duplex and townhouse scene than we give them credit for?

    1. The only things I can think of for San Jose are:

      a) houses are so shockingly expensive there that there are a LOT of cruddy stucco apartments, built in the 60s and 70s, tucked behind the avenues, and a LOT of densely-packed townhouse clusters, built the 90s and 00s.

      b) the buildable area is full, leaving only infill or risky mountain slopes and stuff, so the area is pretty much fixed; whereas our urbanized area is still expanding dramatically. There are no really high density spots in SJ, but no almost-vacant ones either; they have no Thrasher’s Corners anymore.

      Vegas is harder to understand. The only thing I can think of is that they don’t count areas until they’re completely developed. New land in Vegas is almost exclusively taken by huge areas of identical houses all built in one go by a single developer. I guess that would keep density figures up. Also, there’s really nothing there except the gambling business heavily concentrated along the Strip, and the city that grew up to service it.

    2. San Jose is right next to Chicago in the places, and I think the differences are striking. San Jose’s core is not especially dense, but the downtown core of Chicago doesn’t house that many people, rather lots of jobs. Chicago’s urban neighborhoods are quite dense on the north side near the lake, but are considerably less dense aside from that.

      But even a population-weighted study that emphasizes urban cores more doesn’t really measure the urban core or even the peripheral neighborhoods. It measures per-person and population in most US metros today is dominated by suburbs. Chicago sprawls to the west and south without physical obstacle, and its booming western suburbs (Naperville and Schaumberg) are very sparse. San Jose’s outlying areas aren’t any sparser than San Jose itself — its sprawl is physically limited by the Santa Cruz Mountains, the San Francisco Bay, and even somewhat to the southeast by open space preserves. Silicon Valley’s sprawl is a crowded sprawl.

      But what matters to transit is a critical density sufficient for transit to really take off. San Jose and Silicon Valley reach that level almost nowhere, and the development patterns and road networks are predominantly car-oriented, so that at the same effective density walking is harder. Without walking transit has no hope. In Chicago, a significant minority of the metro area population lives in densities ideal for transit, a probably larger portion works in such densities, and a greater part of the population lives and works in places developed before the era of mass motorization, when street grids were designed for efficient walking routes to a variety of places.

      In the Bay Area, Silicon Valley tech companies certainly aren’t located in areas of critical density, and relentless single-use zoning means even people that want to live, say, on the same side of 101 as Google, mostly can’t. There is critical density in San Francisco, and companies like Google and Apple run more employee shuttles from SF than from nearby neighborhoods. In Chicago a large majority of the population lives well below the critical density but some part of that population works in downtown Chicago, at such density.

      When we see Seattle so far under San Jose in a measurement like this, what it means is that our sprawl is not crowded like San Jose’s. The crowding of its sprawl does little for its transit accessibility now, though allows it some potential if it puts some serious effort into walking conditions. Seattle has a downtown core dense enough for transit to work and a stable of neighborhoods built for walking. Even where these neighborhoods aren’t especially dense (from Wallingford to West Seattle to most of the RV) transit succeeds at a higher rate than in Silicon Valley because walking is possible.

      1. Al,

        Very well put. :)

        I totally agree with you: for transit, the important thing is not the average level of density, but rather that there exists a subset of area with high-enough density so that walking is practical and driving is not. If there’s a vast swath of low-density suburbs, that shouldn’t affect the transit situation any more than an empty field should affect the need for police stations.

      2. Precisely, you two.

        But let’s send all our rail to the hinterlands anyway, because rail is magic.

      3. We pave roads to the hinterlands, and then we widen them (The LOS Bible demands we sin not) without question.

        But, let us gaze at our navels only about rail systems.

        Actually, it’s more like scab picking.

      4. Actually (since I was in Mukilteo, Everett, and Snohomish today), if DP is disgruntled about Lynnwood Link, he should be outraged about Sounder. Lynnwood Link may not have a lot going for it, but it makes a lot more sense than Sounder. Mukilteo is a really small town, surrounded by 1990s large-hot housing developments here and there.

      5. Furthermore, I bet the widening of the Mukilteo Speedway alone from its original two-lane road cost more than the Lynnwood Extension, to say nothing of 405, 526 and beautiful exurban highway 9. We built all these multibillion dollar highways and created the situation of a large population dependent on cars, and then you complain about one little $1 billion rail line that can start to turn the area in the right direction. Rail lines are centripedal; highways are centrifugal. The only way to start making the area centripedal is to put in the first all-day rail line. Not in small-town Mukilteo, but in a central location around which the bulk of the population lives. Otherwise people will continue to believe transit can’t be a part of their lives, that it’s not there when they need it, which makes them hold ever more tenaciously to their cars and vote against transit. The reason northeast cities (and suburbs and intercity routes) have more transit is that people can see it running, they’ve used it several times in their lives, and they think, “The area could never get along without it,” and “We’d better expand it.” But if the only thing they have is hourly CT, not on Sundays, and on-again, off-again ST Express, than transit seems pretty irrelevant to them. The only way to start turning this around is to have good trunk lines in Lynnwood, Bellevue, and Tacoma. Then the local transit and pockets of density can start spreading out from there.

      6. Lynnwood Link may not have a lot going for it, but it makes a lot more sense than Sounder.

        You won’t get any argument from me on that!

        Your second spiel amounts to a very good rationale for putting high-end transit in places where it can do lots of good for lots of trips — including the trips made by suburbanites when visiting the denser parts of the region. It amounts to a very bad rationale for building long elevated spines that will look pretty when suburbanites drive right by them on the way to the places they’re actually heading but for which the train is useless to them.

        There’s a reason that suburban New Yorkers all love and value and use the subway when in town, but don’t expect to be giving up their cars anytime soon.

      7. They use PATH and LIRR. The only difference is, they’re separate systems from the subway and they come every 15 minutes instead of every 5 minutes. Given the difficulty we have in getting even one system approved, plus our smaller size and population, it makes some sense to do it with one system rather than two. I wouldn’t object to a separate regional system as long as it came every 15 minutes rather than hourly or peak-only.

      8. PATH is a fully urban subway, so that’s not a relevant example.

        And in fact, LIRR and Metro-North are half-hourly, hourly, or less on most branches and through most parts of their service schedules. And most people who use the systems drive to their stations, and take zero rail trips that don’t involve going into the city. And both networks are extremely limited in their counter-commute utility because by definition they can reach only a fraction of destinations in the sprawl.

        This is the case because even New York’s suburbs are suburbs, and even the many commuter rail lines can’t serve more than a fraction of mobility purposes through a suburbanized landscape, and even in a region of 20 million the demand doesn’t actually exist for what you envision BARTLink trying to do through our pissant Lynnwoods and Issaquahs.

        Even in greater New York, commuter rail is hardly a ubiquitous way of life. It won’t be any more so here.

    3. It’s amazing how quickly you leave Seattle and stumble upon the middle of nowhere. Our suburban density can be so very sparsely populated while being a large area, I think that is contributing here. Even in Phoenix, which is sprawl heaven, there are developments of houses packed wall to wall with small yards, and they keep building these on the edge to expand the city/metro area. These developments are likely more dense than the suburbs we have with rather large yards, space between homes, etc. I am sure ths is similar in other places like LAs Vegas, San diego, Denver, Miami, etc…

      1. Water is the main reason that southwestern metro areas have higher weighted densities than Seattle.

        In arid regions, the municipal water provider is the only source. Also, land outside the urban areas is generally federally/state owned in very large parcels (related to the lack of water). Large sections of land on the periphery are converted to “urban” use, master-planned by a large developer, and water/sewer/roads are extended simultaneously. A continuous swath of moderate suburban population density results, such as is seen in LA, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, etc.

        In contrast, Seattle’s wet environment results in a development pattern similar to land east of the Mississippi. The city’s hinderlands have access to well water, and a wide variety of people own small/medium parcels used for farming, forestry or recreation. A few of these people decide to subdivide their land into 1 acres lots for commuters. Later a small developer decides to put in 56 houses nearby. Bit by bit, the land is suburbanized in a leapfroggy, haphazard manner. This is seen all around the Seattle exurbs, and the exurbs of Boston, Atlanta, et al. GMA has reduced the worst excesses of low-density sprawl in Puget Sound, but a lot was built prior to GMA.

      2. I have read that too, although I didn’t think of it applying that way to Pugetopolis. The desert suburbs stop abruptly at neat lines. I guess the density level depends on when it was built up. My cousin lives in north San Diego county between Oceanside and Escondido, on an isolated street built decades ago. I visited in the 1980s, 1990s, and again in the 2000s, and the area had massively sprawled out in that time. What blew my mind is that neighborhood arterials right off their street are 55 mph! I guess if you make the superblocks really “super”, it works. Bailo might want to move down there, especially with the nearby Amtrak corridor and all-exurban light rail. (Sadly, the Sprinter was just a couple months short of opening the last time I was there, so I couldn’t ride it.)

      3. The same book that talks about water governing sprawl (I think it was “Sprawl: a Compact History” (pro-sprawl) or one of J Kunstler’s books (anti-sprawl)), also says that the northeast has the most sprawl, not southern California. The reasoning is that substantial towns existed every thirty miles or so in the northeast, and so it was easy for sprawl to engulf them in a multi-state swath covering everything except mountains and protected forests. That implies that Washington and Oregon sprawl is somewhere in between, because once you get thirty miles outside the main cities it becomes truly rural, with very small towns and a longer distance between them.

  3. Aleks, I’m not at all sure why that is. The link is to a satirical article on gay marriage. The point of my posts is that there are many ways to save the world from self-immolation. Density as a panacea to the extent that it causes claustrophobia may easily have the effect of making the planet a more uncomfortable place to live. A large percentage of the posters and commenters on this blog are in favor of more density – anywhere – cheaper – because it will insure the success of mass transit and save the world. I don’t drink that cool aid, but I do enjoy reading what the cult has to say.

    1. I dont think many posters and commenters on this blog are in favor of density “anywhere”. Most are for increased density along defined corridors that can therefore be efficently served by frequent, quick, mass transit. Thus allowing people who perfer living in a dense urban enviornment places to live without relying on a car for transportation. At the same time this will make our transit more cost effective, reducing the subsidy required to run it.

    2. Glenn, did you read the article?

      To quote:

      “As we are all aware, it’s simply not possible for gay marriage and heterosexual marriage to co-exist,” Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall said. “Our ruling in November was just the first step toward creating an all-gay Massachusetts.”

      I know you don’t believe it, but it *is* possible for high-density and low-density to coexist.

      There’s no question that Roger Valdez is the most ardent advocate for density on STB. And yet, even Roger is asking for nothing more than allowing the market to address people’s housing needs. Most other posters are asking for significantly more modest reforms, such as small increases in maximum heights or FARs, or decreases in maximum parking. Not one person on STB has ever advocated a minimum height or a maximum FAR.

      Foes of marriage equality often act like someone else’s marriage will cause them real suffering. The Onion article brilliantly satirizes that, by making it crystal-clear how absurd it is for someone to be upset about a gay marriage that they need not have any part in.

      In the same way, the most consistent message I hear from all of your posts is that you’re scared that STB wants to take your single-family home away from you. No one here can do that, but more importantly, no one here wants to. We simply want to be able to choose the level of density that we want to live in. We’re not packing you in — you’re boxing us out.

      1. Not one person on STB has ever advocated a minimum height or a maximum FAR.

        I’ll take that bait. I think it should be illegal to build any structure less than four stories within a hundred-mile radius of the Smith Tower.

        Hey, there’s a hook in this worm!

      2. No, Aleks, I’m not scared that STB wants to take my SFH away from me. My interest is in “livable” cities. When you say we want to choose the the level of density…” who do you mean? The STB gets to choose for all of us?

        I’m not boxing you out. But I am in favor of the people who live in a place electing officials and managing all facets of that community.

      3. We want to choose the level of density where we live.

        I assume, if you think the densest Seattle neighborhoods are “claustrophobic,” that you avoid feeling claustrophobic and live in the suburbs. No one here is trying to densify the suburbs, except for already-existing urban pockets like downtown Bellevue or Kirkland.

        Why are you afraid of giving people options?

      4. People have options. Which people are you talking about? Not everyone wants what you want the way you want it. Nor I. If you believe that because you want to live someplace where you don’t live now, that you have some right to make that place change to accept you, I think you have some growing up to do.

      5. The whole issue is that people around here don’t have options, because artificial regulatory barriers have been imposed on neighborhoods that want to densify. That is why the few dense neighborhoods around here are ludicrously expensive. Let the market densify those neighborhoods where people want density, instead of fighting it tooth-and-nail with requirements for parking that no one wants, setbacks appropriate only for an SFH environment, and obstruction to changes in outdated single-use zoning.

      6. To clarify, the option that I and many others want, that we don’t have in Seattle, is to live in a neighborhood that is both truly urban and somewhat reasonably priced.

      7. As someone who strongly supports Form-Based Coding, I do believe in height minimums and FAR mins (not that I think FAR is a good technique). Plenty of zoning regulations already have this. But, perhaps STB writers don’t, I’m not them.

      8. Glenn,

        David L got it exactly right. What I want is the ability to live in a place that has the kind of human-scale mixed-use density that you see on Broadway, or University Way, or Ballard Ave. The current regulatory environment makes it very difficult to build these places, because of maximum FARs and maximum heights and minimum parking requirements and single-use zoning. Thus, these places are under-supplied and over-demanded, which you can easily see by comparing the price of an apartment or condo on Broadway to an equivalent property in the SFH parts of North Seattle.

        In the absence of these regulations, there’s no question that our urban centers and villages would see more and taller apartment buildings, probably with smaller units, and with less parking. That’s not because of any grand conspiracy; it’s because many people want to live in dense, diverse, mixed-use neighborhoods, and so the market would provide more of that housing if it were able to.

        I don’t think that I have any right to single-handedly define the character of a neighborhood. But I don’t think that anyone else does, either.

        But I am in favor of the people who live in a place electing officials and managing all facets of that community.

        Our economic system — the one that has produced the greatest prosperity for the most people in recorded history — is based on the principle that individual local agents, making mutually beneficial agreements, can make better decisions than a central authority. Throughout all of recorded history, liberalizing economic activity — i.e. removing restrictions on two parties making mutually beneficial agreements — has always improved prosperity.

        Restrictions on economic activity are most justifiable when there are externalities which the market does not address. For example, the monetary cost of gas does not include the externalized cost of pollution, which is borne by the whole world, not just the parties buying and selling gas. Therefore, a tax on carbon emissions, which would reduce the amount of gas consumed, is a useful way to correct a market failure.

        But I strongly believe that the degree to which we regulate land use, and disallow parties from engaging in mutually beneficial agreements, far exceeds any amount of external damage that those transactions could cause.

        What you’re basically saying is that you think that living in a community gives you the right to stop people from making those mutually beneficial agreements, when it comes to land use. By doing so, your actions have the effect of significantly increasing the cost of housing, which makes it harder for people to live here.

        I don’t think that your interest in keeping Seattle sparse outweighs the interests of all of the other people who would like to live here, but can’t afford it because developers aren’t allowed to build.

      9. Stephen,

        I was referring to STB authors, not commenters. I haven’t read a single article on this site, even from Roger, that called for any type of minimum-density restrictions, with the possible exception of parking maximums.

        You know from our previous conversations that my strongest objections are to Euclidean single-use zoning. I believe that the most important characteristic of a good city neighborhood is a diversity of uses, and therefore, I think restrictions which separate residential from commercial development are akin to making cities illegal. I have no principled objection to form-based codes, and in fact, I think that they could have a lot to offer.

        However, I really do think that the best way to approach the issue is by assuming that individual actors will generally make optimal choices, and trying to identify and regulate the (few) situations in which the market will produce poor outcomes.

        For example, a rule that required the ground level of buildings on main streets to have pedestrian-accessible storefronts, and which required a minimum density of one storefront per 20-25 feet, would do an infinitely better job at helping to create more streets like Ballard Ave and University Way. I believe that such a rule is justifiable on public-safety grounds. Blank facades lead to unsafe streets — if you don’t believe me, walk around the Trader Joe’s at 17th and Madison.

        For me, it’s just a difference in perspective. In all other aspects of economic life, we assume that people are generally capable of advocating for their own interests. Only for land use do we assume that we need central planning. I don’t think this perspective serves us well, now or ever.

      10. Aleks, you’re dead on! And great point on storefronts, I really wish I could convince more planners to regulate this in some means. It’s certainly not difficult. I always enjoy your analysis. :)

      11. I’d love to see a guest post from Stephen on his idea of form-based zoning. I’ve read some theory on the subject, but not enough to understand the details.

    3. Many people don’t have options to live in a dense neighborhood with good transportation and a thriving community with lots of bars, restaurants and stores nearby or a bus away. A *lot* of people want to live like that and cannot. What is ‘claustrophobic’ and ‘uncomfortable’ to you is actually a very comfortable and freeing environment for many. I don’t understand what you think STB wants to take away from you. Your posts read like an insane right winger that thinks all the immigrants are coming to take your jobs.

      1. Many people don’t have options to live in a dense neighborhood with good transportation and a thriving community with lots of bars, restaurants and stores nearby or a bus away. A *lot* of people want to live like that and cannot.

        If so many people want to live that way, why are some of the densest cities in the country losing population or barely growing?

      2. Um… because they can’t afford it and there isn’t enough housing.

        Imagine if a company sells widgets, some red and some blue. If you have 20 people, and 10 want to buy blue and 10 want to buy red, everyone is happy.

        But now, suppose that there are 30 people. 20 people want blue widgets, but the company only has enough blue dye to make 10 blue ones. So what happens is that 10 of the people who wanted a blue widget have to buy a red one instead.

        Now, eventually, this dynamic will lead to the price of blue widgets going up, and the price of red ones going down. And so, in a normal market, the company would buy more blue dye and start making more blue widgets.

        But imagine if there were laws saying that you could only manufacture blue widgets for one hour a week, and you had to get approval from all the owners of red widgets before increasing your blue widget production, and you had to provide a free coupon for a red widget with each blue widget.

        In that world, what would happen is that blue widgets would become really really expensive, and red ones would become really really cheap. And so a lot of people who wanted blue ones would buy red ones instead, because even if they’d prefer to have a blue one, they just can’t afford it.

        Needless to say, my paper-thin analogy applies equally well to housing. The byzantine restrictions we place on development means that living in a city is far more expensive than it might otherwise be. Those barely-growing cities are also cities in which urban development is particularly hard, or suburban/exurban development is particularly easy. So you shouldn’t take their lack of growth as a sign of anything other than the restriction on development.

      3. Your paper thin analogy fails because you can’t manufacture the land which is the key piece of the housing market. The number of red and blue widgets is fixed and if people want blue (waterfront) they either cough up more dough or the blue widgets get divided. The the market balances out as some people decide they’d rather have a whole red widget than part of a blue widget. The third possibility is Spacely Sprockets sells green widgets (sprawl) for those that don’t care about the color.

      4. Bernie,

        Physical land is not in short supply. North America has almost ten million square miles of land, only a tiny fraction of which is used for human settlement.

        The constraints on land that matter from a city-building perspective are entirely man-made.

  4. Part of the perception problem is that a lot of people think “Capitol Hill” or “Belltown” when they hear “Seattle”. I usually think “Marysville” or “South Hill” or “Snoqualmie Ridge” instead — places that have been forever destroyed by careless sprawl. Every one of those places — there are a hundred of them or more — expands the boundaries of the region and not only makes it harder to service but guarantees exponentially MORE sprawl expansion.

    Seattle is Los Angeles without the people. We cover a similar area, limited only by the reach of the automobile; and every job that is created closer to the edge than the center extends that reach to the furthest-out place that can still reach that edge job, even if the other edge, or even the center, is too far. This is how sprawl cities consume the landscape forever, as far as it is possible to even imagine reaching, because of our limitless appetite for the ranch house on the half acre, or the closest simulacrum we can afford.

    For that reason my reaction to these numbers is to wonder how far out they counted. I’ll bet they didn’t drive out 530 from Arlington towards Darrington and see the clusters of houses that are being built right in the middle of supposedly “no growth” areas thanks to loopholes in the law. Those houses add twenty people but a hundred square miles to “Seattle”.

    1. Keep in mind that this is population-weighted density. I’m pretty sure it’s weighted by census tracts. So you can add a million square miles, but if only one person lives there, then it will barely affect the numbers.

      Having said that, averages always inherently sacrifice information. That’s why I really like the idea of showing the density against distance from City Hall. When you look at this graph, you see that New York is really spiky at the high densities, while LA is much flatter. That picture says what no number can, which is that New York has center-city density, while LA has dense suburbs.

      I think that you’d see something similar if you compared Seattle and San Jose. Seattle would have a few peaks — Capitol Hill, Belltown/LQA, the U-District, Ballard — and then it would quickly bottom out. San Jose might start lower, but it would stay level for a long time.

      1. Exactly. Well put. I want to see that graph now!

        San Jose is pretty close to a constant density across the valley. In fact, much like LA, you can doze off in the car (hopefully with someone else driving) and wake up fifteen minutes later and have no idea where you are, because the intersection looks exactly like the one you last saw — same chain stores in the same order in the same strip mall, same beige stucco. You can make a fair guess what the houses and apartments in the blocks behind look like, and how many of them there will be.

        San Jose USED to be patchy like us, back when they were considered by most people to be a suburb of San Francisco. Same with the rest of the Peninsula and the East Bay. Now San Jose is much larger than San Francisco, so is the East Bay, and it’s all filled in, largely with difficult-to-serve-with-transit densities — but not as difficult as here.

    2. I think the single biggest tragedy of how transit works in Seattle is that Metro is a county organization. Therefore, its charter is effectively to provide transit *everywhere*, even though many parts of the county have no need for transit and are permanently incapable of supporting efficient transit.

      Personally, if people want to live in sprawl, that’s totally fine with me. But they shouldn’t expect special treatment, and they shouldn’t expect transit service.

      1. Wait – you mean that once upon a time, it did? I heard one person recommending Metro contract with CT to extend the 270 to Skykomish, but…

      2. Yes, there was a Metro, not CT, Bus (well, van anyways) that went up there. 357? I’ll dig throught the archives and see what I can find.

      3. Well, Metro did run the 400-series buses before CT took them over. Anyone know how old CT is? I was wondering that when I saw an Everett Transit bus and thinking about how Seattle Transit got absorbed into Metro. So Everett had its own buses, and Lynnwood didn’t have anything? Or is CT old?

      4. There was a Metro bus out to Skykomish decades ago, I’m not sure when the service ended.

      5. 357 Skykomish it was – ended in the mid-1980s if I remember rightly, and I believe it was a single round trip on Wednesdays only.

      6. CT is about what, 30+ years old? It goes back to the late 1970’s when it was the SCTBA (Snohomish County Transit Benefit Area) if I remember correctly.

      7. Mike and Lloyd, your examples are proof of what I remember. Metro was determined to serve the boondocks come hell or high water long before it was part of King County. Empty buses running around the rural roads in the east are nothing new.

        What was new after the county merger was 40-40-20, which is theoretically gone but still seems to be in effect based on the combination of painful overloads in Seattle and extremely generous service on the Eastside, and, to a much lesser extent, in the south end.

      8. What you’re seeing is that Metro is improving slowly. It didn’t radically yank Eastside service hours after 40/40/20 was repealed, but it’s gradually moving to a trunk-and-feeders system and downsizing the worst outliers. All of the inefficient routes are remnants of legacy service; I can’t think of any new route Metro has added that’s an excessive one-seat ride or doesn’t go between major activity centers.

      9. I took the 3x / week bus to Skykomish to go skiing way back when, probably around 1992 or so. Fares were higher if you crossed into SnoCo…but if you stayed on until you were back into King, you were fine with your two-zone pass.

      10. Likely Bothell P&R. I’d planned to greydog the last few miles up to Stevens, but hitching a ride from the diner in Sky was easy enough.

    3. Fnarf,

      See the update at the top of this post. It’s all three counties.

      That said, because it’s population weighted, there isn’t much difference if you include the forest. Adding a small number of people who have essentially no neighbors is no increase in the numerator and a negligible increase in the denominator. What kills you is populous sprawl, which we have.

      1. ONE almost-empty census tract doesn’t change the average much, but a million of them do. That’s Seattle’s problem — a very large number of extremely low density tracts, extending far, far out into the hinterland. Farther than most people realize, I’ll bet.

      2. The only issue is how many people are out there. The rural areas of the three counties are negligible – a small fraction of the 3m+ in the MSA. If you took the border all the way out to the State boundaries, it would start to make a difference.

    4. Seattle is Los Angeles without the people.

      Have you been to LA? LA and Seattle have very little in common……in fact, LA is more dense than Seattle but instead ‘feels’ more sprawled out. Urbanists in LA would kill to be more like Seattle.

  5. I’ll bet this table very closely matches the real estate numbers. I just noticed something even weirder about Las Vegas — not only is it much more dense than us, but its density is FALLING — they were much, much further ahead of us ten years ago. That’s sprawl plus a real estate collapse.

    Every time I get a new census-full of numbers, instead of being satisfied it just makes me hungrier for more — now I want to see 2020! 2010 is deeply impacted by the Depression many of us have just been through.

  6. How does “population weighted density” react to the large swaths of lake and parkland within the Seattle area that contains zero population?

    1. It doesn’t. Roughly speaking, population-weighted density is calculated by multiplying the number of people in a census tract by the density of that tract, then adding together all the census tracts you care about, then dividing by the total population. Therefore, an empty census tract will not affect the calculation. A nearly-empty one will have only a small effect. This is precisely the problem which population-weighted density is meant to solve.

    2. How well that works depends on the boundaries of the census tracts. If the census tracts are sufficiently small (like individual parcels), that works, but when they’re bigger, things start to break down.

      For instance, let’s suppose that land was naively partitioned into census tracts by simply dividing the land into fixed-size square boxes. Now, let’s suppose one census tract is half lake, but the other half is a bunch of dense multi-family housing along the waterfront. And suppose the second census tract is single-family homes spread uniformly, but with homes consuming the entire tract (no lake), the second tract has just as many people as the first.

      The algorithm would consider the two tracts to be equal density, but to anyone actually traveling through the area, it would be obvious which one is more dense?

      I’m also curious whether the algorithm considers employment density or if it’s strictly a measure of residential density. For instance, the Microsoft campus has a pretty high employment density, justifying a lot of bus service to the area, even though the residential density there is zero, unless you count people who sleep in their offices overnight.

      1. Yes, large parks in Seattle vastly reduce the population density of the affected census tract, if the census tract includes the park and surrounding neighborhood. This also reduces the weighted population density number.

  7. I get the double entendre. “Stacks up.” Nice one. But about the post pic, aren’t you violating the STB policy of using the same pic for two different posts within a month? Sherwin used that pic a few weeks ago.

  8. BTW, Martin, in case you can’t tell from my dozen comments here, I love this post. I love census data, and I love, love, love talking about comparative density!

    1. Hee hee. It did occur to me that a little Fnarf bait would be a good thing for a Saturday. :-)

    2. BTW, I encourage you to download the Excel spreadsheet and play with it some. You might get some insights out of it, maybe enough for a guest post!

  9. “Only two metro areas of over a million people scored higher, and they’re both smaller and also less dense: Virginia Beach (+495) and Portland (+378)”

    Go Portland! I’m impressed that weighted density increased despite the massive sprawl in SW Washington (Clark County, Vancouver WA) and the other edges of the metro area.

    The cut-off of “over a million people” just misses Honolulu, which is about to cross that barrier, and has shown the largest increase in density on the table: +570. If the trend continues, Honolulu will be denser than the LA metro and SF metro areas within 5 years. It really deserves the planned HART rail project:

    However, we should really consider the percentage change in density. Since Honolulu is over twice as dense as Seattle, it’s density increased 5.2%, less than the 5.5% growth of Seattle. But Portland blows them both out of the water, increasing density by 9.5%, the 2nd best improvement on the table, after the 12.8% increase in Virginia Beach. The next biggest percentage increase by a city over 1 million is 6% in Riverside/San Bernardino CA, putting Seattle in 4th place by this metric, and Honolulu in 5th place.

    The biggest drops in density are in New Orleans, unsurprisingly, down 28%, then Cleveland down 16%, and Detroit down 16%. Phoenix AZ and Reno NV round out the bottom 5, at -12% each, followed by Chicago which also lost 12% of density – ouch. None of those cities have done well, economically, in the last few years (And Chicago is no exception, read:

    1. Portland’s place at the top of the list is more impressive when you consider it’s competitors. Virginia Beach and Honolulu are beach towns, where more than half of the potential sprawl is stopped by the ocean – especially in the case of Honolulu, where much if the island is mountainous. And Seattle’s sprawl is also constrained by ocean, lakes and mountains. The same factors are at play in Miami – water on one side, swamp on the other, next on the list of big cities. The developed area is surrounded by flatish farmland on most sides. The only other large city with increasing density in a similar situation is in the DC metro area, which has shown only 2% growth of density, compared to 9% in Portland.

      All the other large inland cities, and some of the coastal ones, decreased in population weighted density, including similar cities to Portland such as Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and Denver. Really, Portland’s growth in density is the biggest “surprise” on the table, based on what you would expect from geography and demographics.

      1. DC is one place where transportation issues are actually having a concrete effect in shaping the city. The traffic there is so hellish and intractable (it makes Seattle traffic look like a minor slowdown) that exurbs are having real trouble attracting growth. The city, meanwhile, is absorbing all the people it can and then some. Housing prices in the city were essentially unaffected by the recession and have shot up dramatically in the last couple of years.

    2. Aaaaand I have a new favorite blog. Thank you, Joseph E. I’ve just gotten started, but something jumped out at me immediately: “175,000 of those 200,000 lost people were black.” I knew this was happening in SF and LA (and Seattle); I didn’t realize it was happening in Chicago as well.

      1. The Urbanophile is a great blog, with long, well-written posts, mainly focused on Midwestern cities. I wish someone was writing this quality of stuff about Portland, or the NW in general. I wish we had an equivalent of STB in Portland too!

    1. I don’t know, but I finally got to try out the D-line today from downtown to Queen Anne. In spite of d.p.’s horror stories of 30+ minute waits, it actually came within a couple minutes, so waiting was not a problem.

      However, my actual experience did lead me to strongly question the wisdom if the LQA deviation. As I got off the D-bus in Queen Anne, I noticed a 1 and 2 bus right behind the D, which anybody going to Queen Anne could have easily used instead, had the D-line taken the direct route to Ballard. Even though the 1 and 2 buses were smaller than the D, they each had a ton of empty seats and would have easily accommodated the 10 or so people getting off at the various Queen Anne stops on the D.

      Furthermore, even though the 1 and 2 buses were right behind the D when I got off, I didn’t see them when I got on the D-bus and we didn’t pass them either, which means the 1 and 2 buses actually made it from downtown to Queen Anne faster than the so-called “Rapid-Ride” line. (I’m guessing this would be mostly due to the 3rd and Pike stop which, for some inexplicable reason, wasn’t #1 on the priority list for off-board Orca readers that work).

      1. I think the LQA routing is what will keep it from ever being “Rapid.” The Rapid Ride line should have followed the 15 Express routing down 15th W and Elliott to Downtown.

      2. Yesterday, the D-line moved through LQA yesterday well enough, although there was nothing going on at the Seattle Center, and consequently minimal traffic. The problem is what happens to the D-line when an event is going on. When the Sonics play at Key Arena while the SODO arena is being built, the D-line is going to turn into a total joke. Thank god people going to Ballard have the #40 as a bypass option – otherwise, taking a bus from downtown to Ballard could easily run over an hour.

    2. He’s probably just away for the day. Even if does move, I doubt he can stay away from us for more than a couple months without coming back to tell us how much more sensible [northeastern city] is.

  10. It seems like the urbists of Seattle want density…but they don’t want to pay for it.

    Apartments and condos in all the other cities are comparatively higher. The STB commenters say things like relax zoning, let people build more density, and then prices will go down – even though that has never happened and makes no sense at all (Hong Kong).

    Getting density means two things…more units, but also more demand…that is..people. Where are all these people coming from? Clearly the people clogging the freeways five days a week to flee from their Seattle jobs want a house with land. And the 20% vacancy rates along the LINK corridor point to failed demand for density.

    So why keep flogging a dead horse?

    1. John, it’s a question of whether we’re actually providing enough supply to meet demand. Generally we fail on that count, so you’re correct that prices don’t decrease when we build more density. That’s just straightforward supply and demand.

      But you’re wrong about it never happening, and there’s proof if it even in Seattle itself. I posted about this a while ago and it’s all based on official data:

      The main point is that we’ve had declining rents during two periods in just the past decade and they’ve both followed booms in apartment building and a commensurate increase in the vacancy rate. Fortunately we have many more units slated to be finished in the next four years and we can expect rent prices to stabilize/drop during that time, assuming that supply is provided faster than demand can soak it up (which seems likely).

      And please be intellectually honest here: the vacancy rate along the LINK corridor has very little to do with demand for density, and you know it. There are many people that simply don’t feel safe in south Seattle; I won’t get into whether that’s due to reality or perceptions, but it certainly has an impact. Your point doesn’t even make sense given that the LINK corridor (south of Downtown) is MUCH less dense than downtown, Capitol Hill, U District, etc. The places that are currently dense, not just hopeful about future density, are positively booming.

      1. All right…take Belltown. For a while it was going great guns building high rise towers here and there. If there were demand for urban living in Seattle, then there would be wall to wall condo towers.

        But no…it went to point and then stopped…although there are blocks upon blocks that could be condo towers.

        What instead happens is that an area like Belltown is then abandoned, and the density hounds move S Lake Union, the Roosevelt.

        Each time its the same story..take a well liked neighborhood. Demand new zoning because of “demand”, Destroy all the things that make it nice, build ugly expensive towers. Find our there is no demand…move on and wreck up another place.

        The Density Hogs are like the people who slash and burn rain forests…only to then wear out that land and then move on. If the people on here were truly urban ecologists, they would be aiming towards managing and expanding regional urbanity.

    2. I live along the Link corridor and I don’t see any 20% vacancy rates. My building is 5% vacant and the story in the surrounding neighborhood seems to be about the same. Are you using old data from before this year’s little housing boomlet?

      1. What is your building?

        Is there a website with “new data” to validate vacancy rates?

  11. I just wish they’d do this for cities, not regions. I care about how development’s doing in Snohomish, but not much.

    1. Municipal boundaries are pretty darn arbitrary. They’re vaguely useful in Seattle, where the geography has physically separated the older, denser neighborhoods from the newer, sprawling ones. But there are plenty of cities (like Memphis) where the city boundaries include land that’s practically rural, and there are plenty of other cities (like Boston) where major urban neighborhoods are under a different local government.

      In other words, if you compare urban areas based on municipal boundaries, you’re going to get highly misleading results.

      You and I and the rest of us here all have an intuitive sense of what “city” means. There are streets and neighborhoods which feel urban, and there are streets and neighborhoods which don’t, both in Seattle and outside.

      I think it would be really useful to pick a density dividing line — say, 5,000 people per square mile — and then count the population which lives at that level of density or higher in each metropolitan area (as well as the land area).

      I think that number could give a real sense of how big and dense the urban core of each city is, without getting distracted by the suburban areas, regardless of whether they’re located inside or outside city boundaries.

      1. I like it. You could move beyond one number and have a curve for each city, with the y axis being number of residents and x being the density of their immediate area (or the smallest unit of census area). This would tell you at a glance not only how dense the dense parts of a region are, but at what density most people live at.

        This would actually be easy to do, if I could get density numbers from the census at this resolution.

      2. And just look at the city boundary in LA for an example of why municipal boundaries aren’t useful. That thing is *crazy*.

      3. Eric,

        Sadly, their threshold for urbanized areas is (I believe) 1,000 persons per square mile. It’s true that, at that level of density, most people live a lifestyle that is more urban than rural (as in, they aren’t farmers); however, the level of density needed to support walking and transit is far higher.

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