Catchment area data: What is it and how to use 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 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 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 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 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 than methods for measuring catchment areas based on area and travel time alone.

It uses a combination of spatial (place) and temporal (time) data to track human mobility more precisely across an area of land. 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.

Frequently asked questions about catchment areas

How do I find catchment area?

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 within a 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 location of your store or business.

2) Determining the catchment area using mobility data to understand the origin 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 greater than two dimensional model of actual human movement patterns. Want to learn more? Book a meeting today!



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