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    Dense, denser, densest

    A look at Seattle's densest and most intensely developed neighborhoods, the least dense, and Pugetopolis' fastest growing towns.
    Belltown residents call on the city to help keep their neighborhood safe.

    Belltown residents call on the city to help keep their neighborhood safe. Kent Kammerer

    In the recent debate comparing Vancouver, BC and Seattle, I quoted Peter Steinbrueck as saying that Belltown was the densest neighborhood in the state. A frequent Crosscut commenter attacked that assertion saying that Belltown isn't even the densest neighborhood in the city:

    Belltown is nowhere near the densest in the state. Capitol Hill and the U District had easily the densest census tracts in 2000, and even the densest tracts in Belltown haven't caught up yet. (If you count commercial land use, then the CBD obviously becomes the densest.)

    Personally, I'd always understood that First Hill was Seattle's densest neighborhood, but I kept finding recent references to Belltown (not only Steinbrueck's), though not with a source cited. Since 2000 was nearly a decade ago, I wondered if there weren't some more up-to-date estimates.

    There are. Through the Puget Sound Regional Council's principal growth planner, Ben Bakkenta, I was provided with spread sheets on neighborhood density estimates for 2008, with data supplied by the City of Seattle's Department of Planning and Development. The estimates are jointly arrived at by the two groups from census block data and job estimates.

    The data are arranged in two ways. The first looks density, population, employment, and households per gross acre (waterways excluded), according to "Community Reporting Areas," which means by neighborhood. The second cut looks more specifically at density and concentration of development within "Urban Centers and Villages," which are the identified commercial cores of various neighborhoods. These are the areas that often factor in planners' discussions about neighborhood growth strategies and targets.

    In any case, according to DPD's figures, here are the 10 most dense Seattle neighborhoods in terms of population and household density:

    1. Belltown

    2. Capitol Hill

    3. First Hill

    4. Pioneer Square/International District

    5. Downtown

    6. Cascade/Eastlake

    7. Queen Anne

    8. Central District/Squire Park

    9. Fremont

    10. Wallingford.

    It's interesting to note that the top three have populations of 40 or more people per gross acre, but by the time you get to the bottom two on the list, the number of people has dropped off to less than half that number.

    The 10 least dense neighborhoods in Seattle are:

    1. Duwamish/SODO

    2. Georgetown

    3. Riverview

    4. North Delridge

    5. South Park

    6. Highland Park

    7. Magnolia

    8. Laurelhurst/Sand Point

    9. South Beacon/New Holly

    10. Arbor Heights

    Note that most of the least-dense areas are South End industrial neighborhoods, with only a couple of more affluent, northern neighborhoods making the list.

    What falls in between is the great residential middle ground where the population is about 9 to 16 people and 4 to 9 housing units per gross acre. These neighborhoods not only predominate, but they are spread out geographically and across landscape and social class. Density-wise, there's almost no difference between Madison Park and Columbia City.

    The top ten most intensely developed, dense urban centers or villages in Seattle are:

    1. Belltown

    2. Capitol Hill

    3. First Hill

    4. Upper Queen Anne

    5. Pike/Pine

    6. University District Northwest

    7. Green Lake

    8. Denny Triangle

    9. Eastlake

    10. Chinatown/International District

    So the city numbers say that Belltown is the densest neighborhood in Seattle, but what about the state? That's inferred, Ben Bakkenta says, because while the PSRC collects no statewide neighborhood-to-neighborhood data, the state numbers (2009 figures are available here) show that Seattle, with over 7,100 people per square mile, is nearly twice as dense any other city in the state, including Tacoma, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Spokane. "So while we haven't done a formal analysis, my gut reaction would be that yes, Belltown and other central Seattle neighborhoods would represent the most densely developed residential areas in the state," says Bakkenta. It could be that a particular new housing development somewhere is denser, he allows, but unlikely that an entire neighborhood is.

    In another sidelight, Bakkenta sent along an overview (the pdf is here) of where the growth in the Puget Sound region has been since 2000, using the state's 2008 numbers. The Top 10 cities in terms of the greatest percentage of growth in Puget Sound from 2000 to 2008 were:

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    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 7:27 a.m. Inappropriate

    Not a bad piece, Mossback. Thanks. But two issues:

    1. "The growth is not in high-density urban cities but rather in suburban and exurban areas."
    That's an error of mathematics. Percentage growth is different than absolute growth. If you start with a very small base population (like each of those small towns you list) then its quite easy to see huge percentage growth. For example, if you have a town of 1 person and add 2 people, you have 200% growth! But you can add 20,000 people to Seattle and you have only 3% growth.

    2. "You have only to drive around places like greater Pierce, Snohomish, and Thurston Counties to see how expansive and extensive the growth has been, despite Seattle's efforts to "curb" sprawl by soaking growth with greater density."
    But that doesn't mean that If Seattle hadn't absorbed some of the growth, then then exurban sprawl wouldn't be even worse than it is now. Though perhaps the real lesson is that Seattle has scarcely lifted a finger to absorb the growth that otherwise heads for the hinterlands (or at least indirectly induces growth in the hinterlands). Despite it's reputation as a big city, Seattle is chockablock with anti-growthers and parochial neighborhood interests who have, even at this late date, kept much of the city at suburban densities. Maybe Crosscut even knows some of these folks.


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 8:22 a.m. Inappropriate

    Nice compilation of statistics, but I have one quibble. Real life stories I have run across indicate that the rapid population growth in the fax exurbs is simply because housing costs are cheaper, not because of anri-density ethic. Fill-in housing in the city and close suburbs is still beyond the means of most families.


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    If your measure of growth is percentage of the existing population, then of course Seattle will be at the bottom of the list given that it has such as large existing population.

    I'd say the absolute numbers are more meaningful. Or, you could report what percentage of the state's overall growth occured in Seattle.


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 8:35 a.m. Inappropriate

    Some 90 percent of the Central Puget Sound region's growth has been outside of the city of Seattle in the last 20 years. Seattle is attractive to only a subset of people who come here. See Dick Morrill's analysis on "extreme Seattle."

    The idea that Seattle will be a sponge that sucks up growth to save the region from sprawl is debatable, in part because much of "the market" still wants what the city can't offer in terms of space, affordability, etc. King County grew by 327,100 people from 2000-08; Seattle netted only 29,400 of those bodies.

    Another factor is that as urbanization concentrates economic activity, it also drives growth in nearby areas. In the same time period, Everett, Tacoma and Bellevue (combined) gained as many people as Seattle. That means roughly 60,000 people moved into central Puget Sound's biggest cities in 2000-08. But it also means that over 300,000 others new to King, Pierce and Snohomish counties chose to live outside those urban cores and dispersed across the countryside to places like Snoqualmie and DuPont.

    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

    Knute, don't bother with density. Better to spend more time on the Quality of life in these locations. Rank them after you overlay such amenities as:

    Amount of recreational open space

    Crime rate

    quality and availability of public education

    access to jobs

    public transportation

    commute times

    all levels of housing types (affordability)

    Size of residential units

    economic and ethnic integration

    demographics (families vs single or married with no children)


    One can plan for density but create wastelands lacking quality of life components. Or, as we see in the massive growth outside of Seattle, emphasis on these quality of life elements first, density last.

    Go get 'em!


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 8:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    Defining the boundaries of your neighborhood makes a lot of difference in the density you find, as such the question is poorly formed. Worse is the statement that Seattle obviously has the densest neighborhoods.

    Some out of Seattle examples:

    Stadium/St Helens in Tacoma
    Salishan in Tacoma
    Crossroads in Bellevue
    Juanita in N. Kirkland
    Renton near Lake Washington (probably the winner for percentage growth)
    Tukwila, on the hill above Southcenter
    White Center
    Downtown Bremerton
    Downtown Bainbridge
    Downtown Poulsbo
    Gig Harbor
    Everett Marina
    Fairhaven Bellingham
    Sammamish Plateau near Safeway and I-90
    South of Redmond along Lake Washington
    Overlake, near MS
    Downtown Mercer Island, including Shorewood
    Meydenbauer Bay
    Downtown Bellevue, near the Library
    Des Moines Waterfront
    Auburn, north of downtown, along the river
    Kent East Hill


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 10:10 a.m. Inappropriate

    Knute, I was going to ask if the city used these neighborhoods for reporting purposes, after computing figures by census tract — http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us/~public/nmaps/neiglist.htm — but looking more closely at your list there seem to be a few which don't appear on the list, so maybe not. Do you know what they were using?
    Either way, though, Douglas, while one's definition of a neighborhood makes all the difference in a study like this, I don't see anything on the list that screams to me "this doesn't make sense." The only thing that gives me pause is "Pike/Pine" and "Capitol Hill" — I always considered the latter to include the former, and it makes me wonder how expansive this list's Capitol Hill is.

    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 10:27 a.m. Inappropriate


    Mr. Berger said he was using some statistics based on urban villages. DPD, rightly I think, considers Pike/Pine to be its own urban village separate from the Capitol Hill Urban Village. They have a good map on the link below. Click the Urban Village button on the left to see them.


    It is difficult to define neighborhoods outside of Seattle, which have basically been defined by the City based on history and custom. I would imagine that a lot of the exurban growth areas really don't add up to what we would consider neighborhoods, but since many of them come with prepackaged retailing the nomenclature of urban village may make more sense.

    Also I think the showing of relative growth rates is quite reflective of what's going on. Not just Dick Morrill, but Doug MacDonald has mentioned many times the error of the Vision 2040 and how it expects the major 5 cities to absorb an outsized portion of the growth. For the first nine years, they haven't come close to meeting their targets.


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

    It's the list of urban villages/urban centers densities that does not make sense and the reason is exactly as Douglas says, although neighborhoods "planning" merely confirmed the village/center boundaries set by the City.

    For example, it is doubtful that Eastlake understood the full meaning of designating all of Eastlake an urban village (Eastlake has no Single Family zoning, so it seemed logical at the time) On the other hand Upper Queen Anne was careful to limit its village to a tiny neighborhood business strip bearing the zoning type limited to local draw (in practice the theory is different).

    The name Uptown/Seattle Center tells you the problem with that urban center right there. And in general, the problem with including the draw such as Northgate, UW, University Village within the calculations.
    And then there is Cascade/South Lake Union that but for the Great Disruption would have soon rose to the top of the list--even now it contains some of the densest, tallest subsidized buildings.

    Does any of this make any difference? Art is right and the world would be a far better place if we approached diner like Paris does instead of like the military mess. Alas, planners are trained to plan by the numbers and that's what they do, which would be OK (I guess) but they either don't bother to check or don't tell the public the outcomes of their intentions.

    Planners discredit with silence those that do check (Morrill, MacDonald, etc.), but wishful thinkers get much more personal about it. Thankfully, Crosscut is not easily put off.

    Planner Peter Hall said it best a shamefully long time ago (London 2001, '89) "thus, indeed, are the ordinary people betrayed by those they trust to run their lives."


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    Knute said: That means roughly 60,000 people moved into central Puget Sound's biggest cities in 2000-08. But it also means that over 300,000 others new to King, Pierce and Snohomish counties chose to live outside those urban cores and dispersed across the countryside to places like Snoqualmie and DuPont.

    I have to question this. I'd guess that the bulk of the 300,000 "newcomers" ended up in places like Shoreline, Kent, Renton, Federal Way, etc. They may not be the 'urban core' but such places are not Dupont or Snoqualmie, either.

    Of course, "newcomers" is a misnomer . . I don't think these statistics, as helpful and interesting as they are, capture movement within our region. Some of the new people in Roy came from someplace out of state, others moved there from Seattle or Tacoma.

    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 12:18 p.m. Inappropriate

    I saw the headline and thought Ted Van Dyk was ranking mayoral candidates.

    Ha! Ha!

    Thanks for pulling this together, very interesting data and information.
    I do get around the north end, between Seattle and Snohomish (and stops inbetween), places I grew up around. Yes, outside of the Seattle bubble the area is exploding with growth, and I think that if "media" had not existed before today that it might have a tough time figuring out where to plant its foot.

    Maybe I am not just wrong, but really wrong in thinking that the urbanists may be creating a dense suburb called Seattle.

    Mr Baker

    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 3:23 p.m. Inappropriate

    Given the Puget Sound region’s relatively short experience planning under the GMA (at least in terms of the timeframes pertinent to regional development) it is really difficult to draw any firm conclusions from the information presented in this article. The validity of the 2020 plan will likely not be know for a number of years, given that undeveloped land within the region’s designated urban growth areas is still available and relatively inexpensive.

    While it is true that the market continues to favor single family homes in traditional suburban environments, it is also equally true that demand for alternative forms of housing has been increasingly rapidly in recent years largely in response to changing demographics. For example 20 years ago the market for the sort of housing which now dominates the Belltown landscape was largely non existent. While many of the “suburban” communities identified in this story are characterized by large areas of single family homes, many also offer a range of alternative housing types such as attached town homes, condominiums, and apartments.

    While the fact that only 60,000 of the 327,000 who moved to the region between 2000 and 2008 chose to move to Seattle, Everett, Tacoma, or Bellevue may seem unimpressive, it is worth considering that in many other parts of the country traditional urban centers actually experienced net out migrations despite overall increase in their respective metro area populations. So it would seem that whatever problems our traditional centers may have they are still attractive to a good number of people.

    It is also useful to understand that many of the “suburban” and “exurban” communities identified by the author as places where growth has occurred are actually being built out to relatively high densities. For example the PSRC has documented that more than 90% of the land designated for single family homes in DuPont, Renton, and Issaquah is intended to be built out at more than 4 units per acre, a number which exceeds the density of many of Seattle’s lower density neighborhoods. Is this low density sprawl? The answer to that question depends largely on ones definition of sprawl.


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 3:56 p.m. Inappropriate

    bjohn, that reminds me of this interview with Christopher Leinberger:
    He points out that they surprisingly found that in the DC area "most of the walkable places are in the suburbs."


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 5:12 p.m. Inappropriate

    The term 'density' really doesn't make a useful tool for measuring urban/suburban development. It's like the debate over global warming - it's useless, because the pertinent debate on that issue is what to do about it. The longer we debate whether global warming should be addressed, the longer we delay deciding 'what' to do about it. The longer we debate 'density', the longer we delay the more pertinent discussion about 'how' to direct growth and development.

    The better measurement is economic 'diversity'. Density without diversity backfires.

    The Commons was not a 'diverse' development. Rather, it was a huge park that did not fit well within the intended purposes of South Lake Union. Lower Queen Anne's 3 major grocery stores with a 4-block area is not diverse. Upper Queen Anne's 2 major grocery stores right next to each is not diverse. Belltown lacks the diversity of a grocery store. First Hill containing literally ALL the region's medical facilities is not diverse. Suburbs are predominately housing, with few other economic elements needed to create complimentary diversity.

    This lack of diversity creates a travel demand that is hard to meet, even in the case of the Commons. In the case of the proposed Wide Plaza for the Downtown Waterfront, that area is likely to become a makeshift parking lot and driveway, (probably SDOT's intention).


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 5:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    I once was evaluating some software called ArcView. Its a sophisticated graphical database for marketing that shows characteristics of neighborhoods -- regions within zip codes. It can resolve data to a few blocks.

    What I noticed is that there are only two high density (using its legend) regions in Western Washington.

    The first is the lower Queen Anne, Belltown area that you mention.

    But the second densest is my neighborhood -- Kent East Hill. This is because of its tightly packed multi-unit apartment complexes, many of which house immigrant families with many children.

    Here's the site for Arcview:


    And there is a free 60 day evaluation is you want to download and confirm my results!


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 6:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    Wells, point taken, to suppose that density alone is a remedy to sprawl is to misunderstand the nature of what we perceive to be sprawl. As demonstrated by the article and subsequent postings, many of Seattle’s neighborhoods are in fact no more “dense” than some newly constructed suburban neighborhoods. They are however (as Wells points out) more economically diverse. In addition, many of the neighborhoods in our traditional urban centers tend to feature interconnected street networks which facilitate a variety of transportation options. Note that while these factors separate “sprawl” from our traditional notion of “urban”, neither is directly related to density. When discussing issues of sprawl and density it is important to realize that “sprawl” is a pejorative term for a pattern of development which people generally find objectionable rather than a quantifiable phenomenon (which density is).


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 9:23 p.m. Inappropriate

    You're being misleading again Knute.

    Whether you're talking about neighborhood planning districts or urban villages, the Capitol Hill and U District zones you're talking about include a lot of single-family (CH) and large areas of academia without residents (UD). Meanwhile, Belltown (same zone for both methods) is drawn as a much tighter area.

    If your definition of Capitol Hill is a similar geographic size as Belltown, you end up with, say, tracts 74 and 84 (bounded roughly by Roy, Broadway, Columbia, Minor, and I-5)...basically the 220 acres dominated by multifamily. Wanna guess how those compared to Belltown in 2000? The gap has narrowed since, but from what I've seen, and my own napkin list of units built since 2008, Belltown is still well behind.


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 9:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    (should have said 220 acres, not "the" 220 acres...there are more areas dominated by multifamily.)


    Posted Wed, Aug 26, 9:34 p.m. Inappropriate

    Regarding the population growth outside the city limits vs. inside certain core cities....that's misleading too.

    Go to Redmond, Mercer Island, Issaquah, Kent, or any of a long list, and you find most of them are building the same types of density currently going up in Seattle's urban villages: 6-story housing with retail often below. Much of this is happening in Seattle-type urban village districts.

    Meanwhile, townhouses are also common in the same cities and others. And much of the single-family is small-lot.

    In other words, urban-type growth is occurring even when it isn't in central cities. Often it's second-generation reuse of previously-developed sites.


    Posted Thu, Aug 27, 5:07 a.m. Inappropriate

    I'm not being misleadng on density, I'm presenting the data Seattle's own Department of Planning and Development and the Puget Sound Regional Council uses. No one has said that "neighborhood" is a scientific term: neighborhoods differ in size, make-up and diversity. Ballard has an industrial base, Madison Park does not. Capitol Hill has more single family homes than Belltown. Yes, that's the point. You claimed that Peter Steinbrueck was wrong in his claim and it turns out he wasn't. Now if you want to measure density or development patterns it a different way, fine. But it's your own personal system, not the one our city and regional planners use.

    It's true that there is a lot of denser housing going up outside Seattle in the non big-city places, but the 2000-2008 period also a lot of conventional, big suburban housing developments came on line. A lot of "in-fill" has been what any reasonable person would judge as sprawl, partly because a lot of stuff was grandfathered in, also the "urban" growth zones were often drawn very generously. Drive around Snohomish County and northern Thurston County and you'll see expanses of new suburban development.

    Posted Thu, Aug 27, 9:01 a.m. Inappropriate

    Steinbrueck said Belltown was the densest neighborhood in Seattle. An area of Capitol Hill that's geographically larger was dramatically denser in terms of residents in 2000, and apparently in 2008 too. It's pretty simple.

    If the City decided to merge much of SLU into the Regrade/Belltown planning district, would that make Regrade/Belltown less dense? Of course not.

    Steinbrueck was being sloppy, and not using any rigor in his research (which he said was last-minute if I recall), or precision in his language. He took the easy way out, finding a source and using it with no context.


    Posted Thu, Aug 27, 9:03 a.m. Inappropriate

    Forgot your other paragraph... True, Thurston and Snohomish Counties have drawn their lines way too loosely. King County does much better.


    Posted Thu, Aug 27, 10:42 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks, bjohn. I've become a frustrated wreck trying to explain principles of New Urbanism and its next step, Regionalism. The mixed-use 'balance' of elements that make an NU district economically diverse apply differently 'between' the many districts within metropolitan areas per Regionalism. Light rail system examples, I believe, are the best way to comprehend how so.

    Consider. Most suburbs lack economically diversity. This lack creates a travel demand is met mostly by driving. Install a single light rail line to pass through a few suburban communities, but leave their economic development patterns untouched, not only is the LRT ridership potential diminished, the community's need for long-distance commuting and travel overall continues to grow, beyond (rush hour) capacity of rail and road. However, diversifying station area economies creates services, jobs and amenities that residents would otherwise travel to meet. The improved economies attract light rail ridership to each station area, and residents build ridership off-rush hours.

    I've been treated like a whipping boy for making such hypothesis. Bah humbug.


    Posted Fri, Aug 28, 12:09 a.m. Inappropriate

    LOL over your appeal to authority, Knute, and your reason for writing the piece too.. "Density" is sure some tar baby!

    The dirty truth about statistics particularly in our region is that institutional memory is long gone, no \body cares much about the other agency's approach or even longitudinal comparison within the same agency. Where it not for the GMA required buildable lands report, things would really be a mess.

    Calm down and take a look at this http://www.housinginitiative.org/pdfs/from_MDC_Website/db9.pdf
    " There are no agreed-upon standard definitions of density, rather each location and profession has come up with an idiosyncratic view.

    Table: Comparison of Density Measures for the SAME LOCATION
    Site density 10 DUs per acre
    Block density 8 DUs per acre
    Net residential density 10 DUs per acre
    Net neighborhood density 6 DUs per acre
    Gross neighborhood density 5 DUs per acre
    City density 4 DUs per acre
    Metropolitan density 3 DUs per acre

    • Density is a number of units--people, dwellings, trees, square feet of
    building--in a given land area.
    • Density varies greatly depending on the base land area used in the
    density calculation. The parcel or site density is almost always higher
    than the neighborhood density, because at a neighborhood scale much
    land is included in the base land area calculation that does not have
    • Population density depends on both dwelling unit density and
    household size. Given a certain dwelling unit density, the population
    density will be lower with small households such as empty nesters than
    with large families with several children.

    • Intensity of building development is measured with several physical
    indicators related to how much built area there is on the site. Most
    measure building bulk and are quite crude. MORE IMPORTANT issues of
    design quality [and equity of access] are much more difficult to quantify.

    Indicators of density in mixed use environments are
    particularly lacking."

    apologies in advance for formating errors


    Posted Sun, Aug 30, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

    It should be noted that density only becomes an issue at its most absurd and illogical extremes. By focusing the discussion on density the debate remains one between “land intensive sprawl” and “compact sprawl” How can we have “compact sprawl”? Aren’t “compact” and “sprawl” mutually exclusive concepts? Not necessarily, consider the following; 20 acres used exclusively for housing is still 20 acres used exclusively for housing whether that housing is built at 5 units per acre or 40 units per acre. Even at 40 units per acre such a development wouldn’t help children walk to school, improve access to transit, or substantially alter the current pattern of auto oriented commercial development.

    As noted in Mr. Berger’s article, “the great middle ground” which constitutes the bulk of Seattle’s traditional neighborhoods falls between 4 and 9 units per acre. For purposes of comparison, the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board has generally held that 4 units per acre is the absolute minimum which can be considered “urban” for purposes of complying with GMA mandates. Accordingly, most of our regions newly constructed “suburban” areas exceed this number (5-6 units per acre is a fairly common suburban density).

    While density remains and important consideration in terms of controlling the spatial expansion of our region, the nature and form of how we develop will be equally important in determining the long term health and vitality of our region.


    Posted Tue, Jan 31, 11:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    Very informative article, and thank you.

    It appears that the State of WA OFM and PSRC links, listed above, have changed.

    Two possible substitutions (I don't know what you had here originally) are:

    1. For the OFM density maps (these are beautiful maps, highly recommended!) -


    2. For the population data from the PSRC -


    Personally I feel that low density is best. The suburbs can be designed to support walkability, parks, and bike trails. Most people prefer to live at the urban fringe at Morrill has pointed out, such as Issaquah, Maple Valley, South Hill, and Mirrormont.

    There is no indication that this will ever change since given the choice folks will choose homes with private yards. Eventually, gasoline powered cars will become natural gas and then all electric. The market will respond to the reality of peak oil with new types of cars that don't look anything like cars on the road today. Indeed the eclectic Smart Car can now be rented for just $99 a month.


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