Does Living Close to Your Destination Make You Late? A Very Small Experiment

I have wondered about it many times, and I’m guessing you have too: if you lived right around the corner from your destination (school, work, church, whatever), wouldn’t you always be on time? After all, there’d be no travel hassle, no potential traffic delays, etc. Or, conversely, might your proximity dull your sense of punctuality?

A reader recently wondered the same thing, and set out to conduct a small experiment. Behold:

My name’s Abhaya Pande. I’m a 21-year-old girl, from Pune, India, who’s on the brink of a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. … As a kid, I was always interested in how things worked and why people do the things they do. I always had a scary intuition that told me when people were uncomfortable or lying. But I just didn’t know anything and everything was economics at work, not the publicized financial stuff, but as you said, “the study of the effect of incentives.”

So I decided to analyze something I’ve always seen, noticed and been a part of, but never really given much thought to: the relation between distance between your home and place of work and the probability of getting late.

So, I decided to put down my first data set and see things differently.

My college class consists of 53 students. All live in Pune: either with their families, in rented apartments, as paying guests, or at the hostel. Of these, 26 (49 percent) live near (within a radius of 7 kilometers) and 27 (51 percent) live far (outside the imaginary 7-kilometer radius). Of those who live near, 17 own a car or motorcycle or scooter and thus have their independent mode of transport. The other 9 in the near group rely on public transport.

Of the far group, 6 have their own modes of transport and 21 have to rely on public transport.

Therefore, conventional wisdom dictates, that those who live near and have their own modes of transport should reach college earlier than those who live far and have no modes of transport.

But my data, which I noted on 3 regular weekdays and averaged out, betrayed this.

As it turned out, 18 were late. Of these 12 (67 percent) lived near and 6 (33 percent) lived far. Of those in the near late-comers, 10 owned their own mode of transport (!) and 2 had to rely on public transport. From the far late-comers, only 2 owned cars, bikes, etc., and the other 4 had use the bus, trains, etc.

So as it turns out, people who live near to college come late, and of those, students who were in control of their own mode of transport, were even more late!

Note: this is my first ever attempt at economics and to professors like you, my data and analysis might seem child-like. My sincere apologies!



I wrote back and asked Abhaya how she gathered her data; i.e., did she interview each classmate as to living location and mode of transport? Her reply:

I did not formally interview all of them. Most of them were my friends, so I knew where they stayed, at least the area. As for the few others, I just asked some of my friends who knew them. Its a little rookie, I know. 🙂

She also included a couple of interesting post-scripts:

Your analysis of the television bringing progress to India’s rural side is spot on! And the production companies have noticed it too. Most of the so-called regional soaps here have one or most of the following elements:

1. A goody-two-shoes, innocent, lovable girl who’s also an empowered woman-to-be (these days, she lives in a village).
2. The fair, successful, rich, brilliant boy, who likes this girl.
3. His vamp-like mother, who thinks she’s the most beautiful of them all.
4. The battle between the girl and the mom-in-law and the brigade of bystander family members.
5. Other nauseating, melodramatic stuff.

But, even though the production houses have started cashing in on this phenomena, it has done a lot of good to the battered women, who can now live life on their terms. Kudos!


I would really love to hear more of your comments on Ericsson’s paper on “deliberate practice.” I even tried it out and it worked! I play the piano, and I was really lagging back on my preparation for Trinity College of Music London’s Advanced Certificate in Solo Piano Exam. I came across the term “deliberate practice” somewhere on the Internet. I Googled it, got the paper, read it and tried implementing. I practiced motifs and passages that gave me trouble, “deliberately,” and I could see the improvements within days! It has now given me the confidence to prepare for the Licentiate of Trinity College of Music London (LTCL), Solo Piano. Thank you Professor Ericsson!

And thank you, Abhaya.


I quibble with her definition of "close".

I suspect the lateness comes from the minimizing of travel time variability among those who walk to work or have minimal commutes. I might assume that my 10 minute walk to work will ALWAYS be 10 minutes and leave at 8:49 every day. Of course, I might decide to get coffee on the way, rather than at the office, or stare at a magazine, talk to a passreby, whatever, and be late. Conversely, if I rode a subway 45 minutes each day to work, I might leave and 7:50 (giving me 70 minutes) because I assume the train might be delayed/slow/etc! So even though the overall travel time variability (say +/- 25%) may be the same, because I "control" that variability when I have a short commute, I discount it entirely.


Sounds fairly intuative to me, about being late if you live close. First of all, the closer you live the less wiggle room you have to make up lost time. Secondly, the self selection factor, if you are a hopelessly late person you probably wouldln't consider commuting from way out.


Perhaps public transportation in some areas - those areas where it runs on a fairly reliable schedule - actually makes people more punctual. It's a built-in commitment device:

If you know the 7:44 bus or train gets you to work on time, but the next one never does, you're committed to trying to make that time. If you're completely on your own, with your own vehicle, you can rationalize all kinds of decisions that lead to a late arrival. (I can make up two minutes on the highway. If traffic is bad, it's not my fault anyway.)

Imad Qureshi

Why is it a surprise? I always live close to work and I am not worried about getting late because I am so close. But if I am far then I have to make sure that I don't miss my train or leave early so I don't get stuck in traffic.

James Curran

I'm come to realize the "20 minutes" is the threshold of "significance" in time perception -- that is, less than 20 minutes is considered a trivial amount of time, while more than 20 minutes is considered a signiificant amount of time.

In regards to travel, for a destination more than 20 minutes away, one would plan travel time into their schedule, while for a trip of less than 20 minutes, they would just figure to "leave a few minutes early" to get there.

("Research" to the above is basic purely on my own personal observations,)


I've noticed something similar. Sometimes I'll meet friends at a restaurant or movie theatre. I live about 30 minutes away from the area, they live 5-10 minutes away, but they're usually late and I rarely am.


I think Abhaya is spot on. I'm much more likely to be late for something within a mile or two of my home than anything further away. I was just commenting on this recently and I have made it a point to arrive in a more timely manner for my close appointments!

Mike B

People who use public transport have to be on time because even a small delay can result in a large lateness penalty having to wait for the next bus or train to show up. This would result in an unacceptable level of lateness so they have to be spot on time. Those who live close to not have to deal with such external factors and therefore they can live closer to the edge, being consistently late on an absolute scale, but never unacceptably late.

Those who live close by have simply learned the true time they have to be somewhere and are able to more efficiently capture the slack time that those with higher variance commutes have to build in.


I live about 5 minutes from my work and I drive in everyday. I'm always the last person in the office around 9:30 am. I do think that living nearby, is part of the reason for coming in late.


Michael B.

Given that our faculty right next to the conference room are almost always late to meetings, versus the people who have to walk in from across campus are almost always early, I'm irrationally willing to bet that something is going on here.


Another interesting study could be done on people who work from their homes.Are they late in their work assignments or are they early.Intuitively I think people who work out of homes would be late


I will readily admit this is completely unscientific but this reminded me of my friends from college and their choices in living. My overall thought is that it really depends more on the person themselves than where they live.

On a personal level, at one point in college, I had a 45 minute (or more depending on time of day) commute to class. At another point, I had a two minute walk. Regardless, I always showed up 5-10 minutes before class started. Even now, I live 2 minutes with all green lights and 5 minutes with all red lights from church. I need to travel there at least 5 times a week for various activities I'm involved in and I always leave the house 10 minutes before I need to be there. Meaning I get there 5-8 minutes early. I work 20-25 minutes away. I always leave 30 minutes early.

So back to my friends at college, the ones who were always punctual would live where they wanted. If they found an awesome apartment or house or wanted to live with certain roommates, they did and adjusted their commute accordingly. The friends who were always late, chose to live in places that were right across the street or within a five minute walk of the main building they had classes in. One even paid extra to rent a house with a bus stop in front so instead of walking 5 minutes, he could hop a 2 minute bus. Their reasoning was, I'm late anyway but I won't be as late.

I'm not saying this is true for everyone. Some people who aren't strongly punctual or late may be swayed by proximity. But I think for the majority, that aspect of them would remain no matter where they lived and what type of transportation they had.




I totally agree public transportation in atleast rich countries does tie the rider's hands. You have to make this train or bus or you will be incredibly late. Ive never been to india but Im assuming the time tables arent rigid and instead there are just a ton of private companies picking up at random times.

Sanchit Gupta

The basic reason for being late to a place which is very close by is the psyche of the person. its because he/she thinks that since they live so close to the destination that they could never be late and thus take longer time to start the morning process of getting ready. its as simple as that


I agree that public transportation has a profound effect. In Boston, where public transportation breakdown is so profoundly common, I usually give myself an hour to get somewhere on time. If I am going somewhere close (i.e., walking) I usually end up ready with time to spare, and end up getting there earlier than expected.

But this is Boston, where the complete breakdown in reliable public transportation services (and the complete absence of direct routes between some neighborhoods) has led to a city in which people spend most of their times in their own neighborhoods (see this map, made as part of a public art project:


I find this very interesting and would like to see someone take the next step. I wonder if the people who live close tend to show up late and decided to move close in an effort to be on time. I personally hate being late and therefore always am early.

If someone would do thsi experiment on a college campus (would be perfect if the dorm was a 5 min walk away from one building class was held, and a 15 min walk away from antoher building class was held) where people arrive to various locations and arrive at a specific time, but the same person would have a different communte. Then it should fully answer the question.


Mark B. and others have pointed out one variable that must register with the public conveyance work commuter: when schedules are spaced at long enough intervals that missing the "last bus" without fail makes the commuter very late, the commuter has increased incentive to be on time for that last bus. But, more to the point, as Joy notes, it is not difficult to determine the variability in your travel time, private or public, add a little to make up for the extraordinary events that crop up occasionally, and be never late.

Some people don't care if they are late, and bosses and theater managers seem willing to accomodate them; if so, then why be prompt--just to not keep those who are prompt from waiting for the curtain to rise?


I don't think it's the distance that typically makes one late or on-time. It is the problem of "familiarity breeds contempt."

If I have an interview for a job at 8:00 a.m. 40 miles away, why, I'll get up as early as 4:00 a.m. to make sure everything is in order and that I can leave as much as 90 minutes early!

But if I get the job and have been there a while--especially if they have a fairly lax timeliness policy--I'm afraid I have to admit that it's very easy to keep leaving home later and later until I arrive with almost not a minute to spare (or even a few minutes late).

This is true whether I am 5 minutes or 50 minutes from work. Alas!

Oddly enough, in the first year of our marriage, my wife and I had a rough go of getting to church "on time." My idea of on time was 10 minutes early...her's was 10 seconds early! We finally started taking separate cars in order to keep there from being murder or divorce in the family--ha!


James Atherton

And--without wishing to be patronising--congratulations to Abhaya for her initiative and effort!


I have a 7 minute walking commute to my place of work with almost zero variation ion commuting time. I leave 7 minutes before the start of the morning meeting. No time is left for any variable. If I do not realize that the trash needs to be changed, cat fed, etc. until it is time to go I will be late by the amount of time that it takes to do the given chore.