How far do we travel to work and why do some people have long commutes and others short ones? Do poor people have to travel further?

I love this question, and love hypothesising about it while on the metro in Delhi or the local train when I lived in Mumbai. I’ve been even more interested in it since I read this excellent 2005 World Bank paper by Judy Baker and others some years ago. The researchers created a random sample of 5,000 respondents in Mumbai and looked at the distance and mode that different sorts of people travelled depending on the purpose of their journey.

They found that the poor commute shorter distances to work than the non-poor, meaning they tend to live closer to their place of work. Their selection of residence might well be determined by their inability to pay for long commutes. Two out of three poor people walked or cycled to work (and this proportion was nearly one out of two for the sample as a whole).

On average, respondents commuted 5.3 kilometres to work. Those who took the train or drove/shared a car had longer commutes than the average. Those who walked, cycled, took the bus, took an auto or taxi or drove two-wheelers to work had an average commute under 5.3 kilometres.

The 5 kilometre mark makes a reappearance this week in new data put out by the National Sample Survey Organisation (its 69th round). The NSSO’s ‘Key Indicators of Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing Condition in India’ has a short section on commutes (pages 28 and 29). The framing of the question is a little frustrating, since it only asks the maximum distance travelled by an earning member of the household for work. In all, 77% of households in rural India reported that this maximum distance was under 5 km while for urban India this was 63.5%.

But it’s the inter-state variation that I find fascinating. I calculated the proportions of households where the earner travels over 5 km for different states and arranged them in descending order. One of the things that jumps out at you is that richer states have more people travelling over 5 km for work, poorer states fewer.

The World Bank findings and my quick calculations from the NSSO taken together, the question that comes to my mind is: are longer commutes actually a proxy for being better off, for being able to live in a nicer part of town and being more able to travel to the best work opportunity? I don’t know yet, but I’ll think about it on the metro tomorrow.