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Originally published May 7, 2012 at 9:00 PM | Page modified May 8, 2012 at 6:52 AM

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The Truth Needle: Mayor's claim about cars found to be half true

Mayor Mike McGinn said 19 percent of Seattle households don't have cars, and more and more younger people are choosing not to drive. But is he right?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The claim: On his monthly KUOW radio show, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn twice cited U.S. Census figures that 19 percent of the city's households don't have a car.

He also said young people increasingly are choosing not to own a car and instead are seeking walkable neighborhoods with good access to transit. He said developers have complained to him repeatedly about being forced to pay to build parking spaces residents don't want.

He used those points to support his proposal, now before the City Council, that developers not be required to provide parking in new buildings within one-quarter mile of transit. "We have better things to do than build parking spaces that will go empty," he said.

People who don't own cars, the mayor argued, "should be allowed to buy an apartment without having to pay for the embedded cost of parking."

What we found: Half true.

The percentage of Seattle households that have no vehicle available is actually about 16 percent — a number that hasn't budged in 10 years — according to the 2010 Census American Community Survey. When we contacted the mayor's office, his staff acknowledged: "The mayor misspoke when he said 19 percent." That is a difference of about 6,300 households.

What's more, the same census data for Seattle shows that 39 percent of households have two vehicles and 17 percent have three or more.

But even the 16 percent figure is squishy.

The mayor said job creation via more housing construction is the main goal of the package that includes the change in parking requirements. But when you look at households in Seattle that include at least one person with a job, the number without an available vehicle drops to 11 percent.

That means the overwhelming number of people who work, drive. If Seattle has more apartment buildings without parking, is that better or worse for the working class?

Aaron Pickus, the mayor's spokesman, didn't answer that question. Instead, he repeated that allowing the market to decide how much parking is needed can help a project pencil out for development, which helps create construction jobs.

The mayor's key point was that there is a shift away from driving, especially among young people, and the city should plan accordingly as it grows.

"The younger generation is looking to drive less than years ago," McGinn said.

To bolster his argument, the mayor said the percentage of 16-year-olds getting their driver's licenses is at an all-time low, and the percentage of 21-year-olds with licenses also is at an all-time low.

Indeed, according to a recent national study in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention, 31 percent of 16-year-olds had driver's licenses in 2008, down from 46 percent in 1983.

But that trend not only isn't true in King County, it's reversed. Here, the percentage of 16-year-olds getting their license has increased from 31 percent in 2006 to 45 percent in 2011, according to the state Department of Licensing. The department has data by age going back only five years, and only by county, not city. The department said it did not have available the percentage of local 21-year-olds with licenses.

Asked why that local trend is reversed from the national trend, a department spokeswoman said the agency doesn't "tend to analyze the data. We simply provide it."

Pickus responded: "It may depend on how you count and how long you graph the trend."

The Mayor's Office also sent us some numbers from the census to back up his point that the ways people get around are changing.

Commuting by bike in Seattle, they said, is up 105 percent in 2010 compared to 2000. Transit use is up 11 percent and walking 25 percent.

But while the percent gains are impressive, the overall numbers are still modest when you look at the entire commute. Cyclists, for example, went from 1.9 percent of commuters in 2000 to 3.6 percent in 2010, according to an analysis by the League of American Bicyclists.

That analysis put Seattle as the No. 2 city for bicycling, behind Portland and ahead of San Francisco and Minneapolis.

And what about those parking spaces in new buildings? Will the 16 percent who don't have a vehicle rent the apartments without on-site parking? Or will someone in the 84 percent with a car sign the lease?

KUOW host Steve Scher asked McGinn where the person who owned a car would park if the building didn't provide spaces.

Said the mayor: "Then they'll have to figure out where to park their car, just like everyone else in the city."

Seattle Times researchers Gene Balk and David Turim contributed to this report.

Lynn Thompson: 206-909-7580

or lthompson@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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