No, it's not just your imagination: The Bay Area has gotten more crowded.
MAP: The Bay Area Leads California in Population Growth
The population of the nine-county region grew by over 600,000 people since 2010 — a nearly 8.5% increase — outpacing the growth rate in any other part of California, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released Thursday.
Nearly 7.8 million people now call the Bay Area home, with the fastest growth rates in Alameda, San Francisco and Contra Costa counties, the estimates show.
The region's population surge reverses a decades-long trend of more rapid growth in the state's inland areas, a shift largely driven by job growth and changing lifestyle preferences, said Hans Johnson, a demographer with the Public Policy Institute of California.
"You don't need an expert to tell you that it's obviously related to the strong economy of the Bay Area," he said, noting that the region is now struggling to accommodate its own rapid pace of job growth and very low unemployment.
"It's resulted in, yes, some increase in housing construction because demand is so high," he said. "But the other part of the story is that, to find housing, people are also increasingly commuting from outside the inner core of the Bay Area."
And it's historically pretty remarkable for Alameda and San Francisco counties to have the fastest growth rates in the region, Johnson added.
"It used to be long-established urban areas like San Francisco and Oakland had among the slowest growth rates, even outright population declines in some years," he said. "And it was the outer core of the Bay Area that was seeing more rapid growth."
The recent shift, he said, is about the growing demand to live closer to work and the increasing difficulty of commuting into San Francisco.
Bay Area crowds aside, Johnson added, one of the most striking takeaways from the census data is that California over the last decade has actually experienced its slowest rate of growth ever recorded, with an unprecedented migration of residents to other states. Since 2010, the state has grown by about 2.3 million people, or just over 6%.
"The big picture here is that real growth is slowing," he said, noting that even the rate of increase in the Bay Area — of about 1% a year — pales in comparison to what the region's growth looked like during the state's major population booms in the early 1900s and post-World War II years (not to mention the Gold Rush era a century earlier).
"So if you're going to look at where growth has really changed, yes, it's increased somewhat here in the Bay Area, which is notable," Johnson said. "But what's really notable is how much it's declined and slowed down in inland areas of the state."
Lisa Pickoff-White contributed to this report.