Four things we learned about Gateway City travel this summer

Understanding mobility patterns

The Googles of this world have loads of travel data to understand mobility patterns at minute detail. While most researchers and planners never get a good look at these real-time data, we do have two interesting sources of information that can help us learn more about how people travel across the state.

One resource is the origin and destination data from the Census Bureau’s LEHD program. This dataset is far from perfect. It only tells us about work trips; it doesn’t give us the mode or time of travel; and it only extends back to 2010.

Despite these limitations, there’s still a lot we can learn about mobility, especially when we combine this information with what we know about vehicle travel from administrative records. Massachusetts is fortunate to collect mileage at each annual vehicle inspection. MAPC compiles these data for the entire state to gives us a picture of how much people are travelling in their cars, depending on where they live.

We spent time this summer combing through these two datasets and came away with four interesting takeaways:

  1. Not many Gateway City workers commute to Boston. The LEHD data from 2014 tells us that the share of workers living in Gateway Cities and commuting to the city is rather low (Figure 1). Among the Gateway Cities, Brockton has the largest number of Boston-bound workers (15 percent). For other relatively close Gateway Cities, the share of workers employed in Boston is significantly lower. In Lawrence and Lowell, fewer than one in 10 workers commute to jobs in Boston.

Figure 1: Share of Gateway City Workers Commuting to Jobs in Boston, 2014Only about 5 percent of workers are traveling to jobs in Boston from Fitchburg and Worcester, which sit at the end of their commuter rail lines. Fall River and New Bedford are roughly the same distance to Boston as these two central Massachusetts cities; while they lack commuter rail down on the South Coast, they have a similar share of residents departing each day for jobs in Boston.

  1. Even in the more affluent suburban towns surrounding Gateway Cities, most workers aren’t going to jobs in Boston. A higher percentage of residents in Gateway City suburbs have the education most downtown office jobs require and the income to support a longer commute. However, the 2014 LEHD data show these residents are traveling to jobs in Boston at only slightly higher rates. The difference between Lowell and its tonier suburbs is about 3 percentage points. The share of workers living in Dartmouth who commute to Boston is similar to the share coming from New Bedford. Likewise, a similar percentage of commuters from Shrewsbury and Worcester travel to Boston. While there are large socioeconomic difference between these communities, they seem to have surprisingly little effect on the choice or ability of workers to commute to Boston.
  1. As the economy rebounded, the number of Gateway City workers traveling to Boston declined. Between 2010 and 2014, the LEHD data show a slight drop in the number of Gateway City commuters traveling to Boston (-2 percent), even as the number of Gateway City workers rose by 4 percent. This trend could suggest that as more jobs became available, fewer workers needed to make the long journey to Boston to find employment, however it is somewhat unexpected given that job growth during this period was significantly stronger in Boston than in Gateway City regions.
  1. Overall, Gateway City households drive less than suburban households, but those with cars rack up nearly as many miles. Not unexpectedly, Gateway City households drive 1.4 cars on average, compared to 2 cars per household in Gateway City suburbs. With fewer cars, Gateway City households travel 50 percent fewer miles on average (40 miles per day in Gateway Cities vs. 60 miles per day in Gateway City suburbs).

However, looking at how much each vehicle actually travels is revealing. There is very little difference between Gateway Cities and their suburbs (28 miles per day versus 30 miles per day) on this measure. In fact, Gateway Cities compare much more similarly to their suburbs than to Boston—Boston cars travel only 24 miles per day, and because there are fewer cars than households in Boston, miles per household is even lower, just 22 miles per day.

Figure 2: Daily miles of travel per household, Gateway Cities and their Suburbs, 2014

Figure 3: Daily miles of travel per vehicle, Gateway Cities and their Suburbs, 2014

Another interesting tidbit we can glean from these data is how travelers responded in the economic recovery. These figures show vehicle travel increased by 16 percent in Massachusetts between 2010 and 2014. Growth in travel in the Gateway Cities was slightly sharper (19 percent) over this four-year interval.

What to make of all this? First off, the low percentage of Gateway City workers commuting to Boston isn’t entirely a bad thing. Gateway City regions need their talent; they don’t want to export it all to the Boston economy. On the other hand, there are higher wages to be had in Boston. In an ideal world, our transportation network would enable a lot of exchange between workers living in the metro Boston core and Gateway Cities and their regions.

This starts with efforts to double down on the urban fabric in our Gateway Cities. In dense, mixed-use cities, there will be much less need to travel by car and much higher utilization of the transit network. Daily vehicle miles travelled per household and vehicle are excellent measures of how well we’re doing building this kind of vitality in our Gateway Cities.


Note: “Boston” includes all workers commuting to Census tracts in Boston or Cambridge. The following table contains definitions for Gateway City suburbs: 

Brockton Abington, Avon, Brockton, East Bridgewater, Easton, Holbrook, Sharon, Stoughton, West Bridgewater, Whitman
Fitchburg Ashburnham, Ashby, Fitchburg, Gardner, Lancaster, Hubbardston, Leominster, Lunenberg, Shirley, Townsend, Westminster
Lawrence and Haverhill Andover, Boxford, Georgetown, Groveland, Methuen, North Andover
Lowell Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough
Worcester Auburn, Boylston, Grafton, Holden, Leicester, Millbury, Paxton, Princeton, Shrewsbury, West Boylston
Fall River and New Bedford Acushnet, Dartmouth, Fairhaven, Freetown, Rochester, Somerset, Swansea, Westport
Holyoke and Springfield Agawam, Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Easthampton, Granby, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, South Hadley, Southamption, Southwick, West Springfield, Westfield, Wilbraham
Pittsfield Dalton, Lanesborough, Lenox, Pittsfield, Richmond




Meet The Author

Sindhu Bharadwaj

Graduate Fellow, MassINC

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