Catchment area: what is it, and how to determine it

What is a catchment area?

A catchment area is the geographic area from which a given point of interest (POI) draws its visitors. It can be defined using a buffer area on a map, measuring walk and drive times, or by using mobility data.

Any POI can serve as the basis for defining a catchment area. It could be a single retail store or a whole BIA, a neighborhood school or a city hospital, a subdivision to be developed or a monument to be built.

Determining a location's catchment area is critical for anyone that wants to understand where their visitors are coming from. It can also be a helpful process for identifying new locations that may need to be invested in.

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Methods for determining catchment area

The first step to determining catchment area is deciding on the specific location or area you want to measure. But that's just the start. Next, you need to determine exactly how you want to define your catchment area.

Two standard methods of going about determining catchment area are to use are the buffer technique (everything in a circle within N distance is included), and the walk and drive time technique (everything within an N minutes long commute is included). Depending on the use case, there are pros and cons to each of these techniques for measuring catchment area.

Buffer areas

The buffer area technique is like using an old wing and pencil holder. Pick a spot on a map and draw a perfect circle at any distance you like around it. For example, everything with N kilometres of a given location is within the catchment area. That's basically the buffer area technique.

PRO - Buffer areas are easy to define and make understood.

CON - Buffer techniques rely mostly on spatial proximity to determine catchment area.

That con is a big one because it means the buffer technique doesn't account for how long it takes people to cover the distance from where they are to your POI. To get to that level of insight, you need to apply the walk and drive time technique.

Walk and drive time areas

The walk and drive time technique for defining catchment areas (sometimes called travel time) uses the temporal aspect (how long it takes us to get to and from the POI). For example, using a car, it's N minutes to travel this area, walking it's N minutes travel from another. So, the time it takes to make the trip is the key determinant, rather than the distance covered.

PRO - Walk and drive areas consider the customer journey better than buffer areas alone.

CON - Walk and drive techniques rely largely on temporal proximity and ignore other behaviors.

As with buffer areas, the walk and drive time technique is limited. Specifically, while adept at accounting for gross time to travel to and from the POI, there is no consideration given to the whole of the journey (e.g. other destinations), or the implications of that journey (e.g. cross-visitation to competitors or partners).

Depending on your use case for determining a catchment area, you likely want to go a step further and incorporate foot traffic data using the mobility areas technique.

A better technique for catchment areas: mobility areas

The mobility areas technique for defining catchment areas is a little different.

It uses a combination of spatial (place) and temporal (time) data to track human mobility more precisely. Does your customer travel this 10 kms in 20 minutes straight to your store, or do they stop a couple places in between to run errands; maybe at your competitor's location?

The mobility areas technique provides a real world view of both historical and current movement patterns that's pinned to a custom location and can be validated to ground truth. Further, mobility data can be easily ingested and blended with other types of data, such as demographic and transactional.

By using location data in your analysis, you'll get a more complete view of your actual catchment area and what's happening within it.


Catchment areas are determined using a variety of techniques. The most comprehensive and flexible of these incorporate location data and human mobility data to provide a greater than two dimensional model of actual human movement patterns. Want to learn more? Book a meeting today!



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