Catchment area data: What is it and how to use it

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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 time or drive time, or by using mobility data.

Any POI can serve as the basis for defining a catchment area. It could be a single retail store, a business improvement area, a neighborhood school, 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 and calculating 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 catchment area analysis.

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 within 10 kilometers of a given location could be your catchment area.

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

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

Unfortunately, that con is a big one. 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, also called travel time, uses commute time as its basis — i.e. How long does it take us to get to and from the POI? For example you could define the areas as, anyone within a 5 minute drive or a 20 minute walk of the POI.

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 it accounts for total 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, you likely want to go a step further and incorporate foot traffic data and define your catchment area by 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 than the previously mentioned methods for measuring catchment areas.

It uses a combination of spatial (place) and temporal (time) data to track human mobility more precisely across an area. Does your customer travel this 10 kilometers 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 by ground truth analysis. Further, mobility data can be easily ingested and blended with other types of data, such as demographic and transactional.

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

Requirements for determining your catchment area

The requirements for determining your catchment area will vary depending on which method you intend to use. When you include mobility or foot traffic data, your catchment area will typically use each of these steps to build out a full, multifaceted model of the area you are studying.

Catchment Area Data

Again, the data you need to collect or source will depend on the method you’re using. For a buffer analysis, you simply need a map and the location of your point of interest. Using a mobility analysis will require foot traffic data as well as demographic and migration data.

Buffer Analysis

As the simplest of catchment area definition methods, this requires simple map data. You locate your intended POI and simply draw a circle around it at the distance you want to analyze. Then you take every location within that buffer and use it as your basis for analysis.

Drive Time and Walk Time Analysis

While the buffer method will give you a neat, perfect circle on your map, the drive and walk time method will create an oddly-shaped catchment area based on how long it takes people to access your POI by foot, car, or even public transit. Once your area is determined you can source demographic information about the businesses and people in this catchment area to build your analysis.

Mobility Analysis

While certainly the most complex method of determining a catchment area, the mobility analysis also delivers the greatest insight. But that complexity requires more data. While travel time plays a factor, just sourcing that data will not provide a true mobility analysis. By analyzing foot traffic data and vehicle traffic data in addition to the time to commute, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the behavior and trends of people in your catchment area. Pairing this with demographic and migration data, as we do in Unacast Insights, helps you make better informed decisions and stay one step ahead of your competitors.

Top 5 Catchment Area Providers

Whether you’re looking for a data provider so you can create more insightful catchment areas or an all-in-one location intelligence solution that includes determining catchment areas, there are multiple solutions on the market. It’s important to understand how a chosen solution fits with your existing workflow and tech stack — does it use an API? How easily can you integrate the data into your existing efforts? Does the provider cover the right areas with enough granularity?


With a focus on privacy-maintaining mobility datasets and migration patterns, Unacast leverages multiple data sources (device GPS data, weather, demographics, industry trends, and specific property data), cleans and stabilizes the data using machine learning, and provides focused, curated datasets and insights.

The Unacast Insights platform makes analyzing catchment area data more accessible, providing generated insights without having to manipulate the data on your own.


US Only

Data Integration?

On top of our API-based integration, we can also help you process the location data you’ve already gathered while maintaining security and privacy compliance.

API Available?



Designed for modern location intelligence efforts, Carto is a cloud-native GIS product that was designed to integrate with a modern tech stack.



Data Integration?

Cloud and on-prem options available.

API Available?


Placer AI

Placer AI provides consumer foot traffic. The company harnesses mobile data from a GPS data provider and generates visualizations on its platform.


US Only

Data Integration?

Via API or automated bulk download feeds

API Available?



SafeGraph has a mission to grant open access to geospatial datasets like points of interest and foot traffic. They work to empower firms with better analytics and geolocation intelligence.



Data Integration?

Via 3rd party integration partners

API Available?

Places API provides POI integration

TravelTime API

This travel time-focused solution allows you to programmatically determine catchment areas by travel time to and from your specified POI.



Data Integration?

The TravelTime solution is only available via the API for use in custom apps or sites.

API Available?


Frequently asked questions about catchment areas

How do you identify a catchment area?

A catchment area can be measured by:

  1. Drawing a buffer zone around an area.
  2. Using walking and driving time to the location to estimate the catchment area.
  3. Using human mobility data to understand where visitors are actually coming from.

How many miles is a typical catchment area?

The catchment area of a location can vary in distance. For walking traffic, it is within 1 or 2 miles, and for driving traffic, it may be up to 30 minutes or even an hour of driving distance, depending on the location in question. The most reliable way to measure catchment area is using human mobility data to see where customers are coming from.

What is the importance of catchment mapping?

Catchment mapping is important for businesses because it provides a visual representation of the geographical area from which a business draws its visitors. This is helpful for things like location-based marketing planning, site selection, competitor analysis, and resource allocation.

How to build a catchment map data visualization to conduct better trade area analysis?

Build a catchment map by:

  1. Identifying the point of interest — for instance, the location of your store or business.
  2. Determining the catchment area using mobility data to understand the origins and destinations of your customers.
  3. Gathering demographic data such as age, income, and education.
  4. Understanding transportation patterns in the area, including highways and public transportation.
  5. Using a mapping tool like ArcGIS or QGIS to create a catchment map. The tool should allow you to overlay demographic data and transportation patterns on the map.
  6. Analyzing the catchment area to make decisions about marketing and pricing strategies, product offerings, and store operations.
  7. Updating the map regularly. As demographics and transportation patterns evolve, it's important to update your catchment map to ensure that your analysis remains accurate and relevant.


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 model of actual human movement patterns. Want to learn more? Book a meeting today!



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