Overcrowded local trains and buses may fuel the popular perception that commutes are getting longer, but new data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) show that more and more Indians are choosing to work closer to their homes.

While fewer wage-earners work from home now compared with a decade ago, among those who have to travel, a higher proportion now work within 5km of their residence.

NSSO data for 2012 shows that wage-earners in 58.8% of Indian households travelled a maximum of 5km to work, compared with 53.1% in 2002. The increase in the proportion of shorter commute households is 4.4 percentage points in urban India and 7.3 percentage points in rural areas, offering some clues to the pattern of urbanization in the country.

For one, rising real estate prices and higher costs are driving factories and offices to the periphery of cities. This is true of the major metros where the rise of peripheral regions such as Noida, Gurgaon and Navi Mumbai offer enough evidence. There is a lot of institutional housing near these places of work and people would rather rent or buy there than commute over long distances, said Dinesh Mohan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, and an expert on transportation research.

Second, the rise in the percentage of rural population commuting closer to home is because of a shift in the location of the formal manufacturing sector from urban to rural areas, while the informal sector has moved from rural to urban areas, Ejaz Ghani and others point out in their 2012 paper Is India’s Manufacturing Sector Moving Away From The Cities?

Thus, rural workers who once were either working from home or commuting to towns and cities to work now find employment closer to their homes. It is also important to note that the rural region classification could well include so-called peri-urban areas, pointing to a continuous outward growth of urban agglomerations beyond the official boundaries suggested by census data, say S. Chandrasekhar and Ajay Sharma from the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in their 2014 paper Urbanization and Spatial Patterns of Internal Migration in India.

Given that commuting is an important indicator for quality of life, does this mean that living conditions have improved?

That may be hard to conclude.

As Amitabh Kundu points out in The State of World Population Report, 2011, “...some of India’s major cities are experiencing ‘degenerative peripheralization’—where the people are driven out by the high cost of living and the scarcity of jobs that pay a decent wage to live in ad hoc settlements on the periphery of metropolitan areas."

Thus, even if people are working closer to home, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their standards of living have improved.

Indeed, NSSO’s 2012 data for urban regions shows that a larger proportion of richer households have longer commutes to work. The term “rich" here is used in the loose sense of those households with higher consumption as captured by NSSO. As Chart 2 shows, only 55.6% of the richest households have commutes of less than 5km compared with 71% of the poorest households.

“Highly educated (people) or people who are specialists can’t easily find a job (close) to where they live," said Mohan of IIT, Delhi. That, of course, assumes higher levels of income and consumption as a proxy for education. In some cases, they don’t want to stay close to their work place, much like the middle class in the US who moved to suburbia.

Close