The economics of commuting and the urban labour market

A. van der Veen, Wayne Simpson

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The spatial distribution of households and firms, or urban spatial structure, is a core element of the study of urban economics and the crucial determinant of commuting patterns. This paper examines developments in the analysis of urban spatial structure and commuting are related to the urban labour market - that is the analysis of labour supply and labour demand in a spatial context. These developments have been overlooked in the traditional approach to urban structure and commuting where most attention has been devoted to the markets for land and housing rather than the market for labour. Yet a little reflection suggests that the labour market might have a great deal to do with the location decisions of households and firms, and hence with commuting patterns. We argue that much criticism of the economic analysis of urban structure and commuting can be addressed by explicit incorporation of the labour market into the conventional model of urban location. This criticism includes findings that the theory cannot explain the tendency for richer households to live farther from the central business district and commute farther to work (Wheaton, 1977) and findings of substantial unexplained or 'wasteful' commuting according to conventional theory (Hamilton, 1982). The paper begins by outlining the basic model of residential location and commuting (Section 2). We then consider extensions that involve the introduction of labour supply decisions and which determine the value of commuting time (Section 3). More recent extensions involve the introduction of decentralized workplaces (Section 4) and, logically, the issues of job search and migration (Section 5). We conclude with a summary of the progress in incorporating labour market behaviour into the analysis of urban structure and commuting and our suggestions for further research in this area.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-62
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of economic surveys
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1992


  • residential location
  • workplace location
  • labour market
  • urban structure
  • Commuting
  • IR-70968
  • METIS-100368


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