The hidden universality of movement in cities

Markus Schläpfer, Michael Szell, Hadrien Salat, Carlo Ratti, Geoffrey B. West


The interaction of all mobile species with their environment hinges on their movement patterns: the places they visit and how frequently they go there. In human society, where the prevalent form of cohabitation is in cities, the highly dynamic and diverse movement of people is fundamental to almost every aspect of socio-economic life, including social interactions or disease spreading, and ultimately is key to the evolution of urban infrastructure, productivity, innovation and technology. However, despite the crucial role of the spatio-temporal structure of movement in cities, the laws that govern the variation of population flows to specific locations have remained elusive. Here we show that behind the apparent complexity of movement a surprisingly simple universal scaling relation drives the flow of individuals to any specific location based on both frequency of visitation and distance travelled. We derive a first principles argument stating that the number of visiting individuals should decrease as an inverse square of the product of visitation frequency and travel distance; or, equivalently, as a power law with exponent ≈−2. Using large-scale data analyses, we demonstrate that population flows obey this theoretical prediction in virtually all tested areas across the globe, ranging from Europe and America to Asia and Africa, regardless of the detailed geographies, cultures or levels of development. The revealed regularity offers unprecedented possibilities for the modelling of mobility fluxes at high spatial and temporal resolution, and it places an important constraint on any theory of movement, spatial organisation and social interaction in cities.