Exploring universal patterns in human home/work commuting from mobile phone data

Technology Review writes about a new working paper from Kevin S. Kung, Stanislav Sobolevsky, and Carlo Ratti: [1311.2911] Exploring universal patterns in human home/work commuting from mobile phone data: “Exploring universal patterns in human home/work commuting from mobile phone data

(Submitted on 12 Nov 2013)
Home-work commuting is known to be one of the major components of human mobility and therefor always attracted much research attention. One of the well-known assumptions being the focus of many works in this area is the universal uniformity of commute times. However, quantifications of commute patterns have often been baffled by the intrinsic differences in the data collection methods, which make the observations from different countries incomparable. In the present work we use mobile phone data offering a common methodology for investigating into the mobility pattern in different parts of the world including entire countries as different as Portugal and Ivory Coast as well as cities (Boston) also comparing results with those obtained from vehicle GPS traces in Milan. We showed that despite substantial spatial and infrastructural differences, the commute time distributions and average values are indeed largely independent of commute distance or country.

So cell phone data corroborates a mean commute time of about 1 hour each day. Yacov Zahavi and others have been talking about this for decades. (I have done a few papers on this topic myself.) It is always good to see more empirical evidence, and such a large data set. The method uses some inferences to determine when someone left home (last phone call at home (most frequented) cell phone tower) and arrived at work (first phone call at work (2nd most frequented) cell phone tower).

There are some details I am not clear about.

I am not always on the phone, and often don’t call just before departing or just after arriving … I would have picked the minimum time of all days when they had calls at home and work (since on the extreme day they are off and on the phone continuously, but on others not), but they don’t say they did that. Also towers serve big areas, and entering a tower zone does not mean arriving at work or home. Still, good to see data used in interesting ways, it is just important to be careful about interpretation.

I think the claim of universality needs to be tempered, since mean commute time (Figure 5(a) varies from under 60 minutes average in Boston to almost 80 minutes in Ivory Coast, a non-trivial difference.

I also think “human” in the title is unnecessary, until we find other species that have home/work commutes.

H/T JW