I'd like to calculate the pairwise distance between two geometry columns. That is, I want to calculate the distance between several pairs of geometries without calculating the full distance matrix between every possible pair. I've come up with a way to do it with purrr::map2_dbl, but it feels messy. Is there a better approach?


# Load sample data and project to EPSG:5070.
nc <- st_transform(crs = "+init=epsg:5070",
  st_read(system.file("shape/nc.shp", package = "sf"), quiet = TRUE))

# Here's the full distance matrix. I don't want that.
nc_dist_mat <- st_distance(nc, nc)

# Define a function to calculate distances pairwise:
pairwise_distance <- purrr::partial(purrr::map2_dbl, .f = sf::st_distance)

# distance to self is always zero:
pairwise_distance(st_geometry(nc), st_geometry(nc))  
# distance to random county isn't always zero:
pairwise_distance(st_geometry(nc), st_geometry(dplyr::sample_frac(nc)))  

1 Answer 1


Loop over each geometry with mapply?

For any two geometry column vectors:

> set.seed(1)
> g1 = st_geometry(nc); g2= st_geometry(dplyr::sample_frac(nc)) 

> mapply(st_distance, g1, g2)
  [1] 152687.52 390721.95 105485.92 363253.27 214961.38  66748.80 309538.72
  [8]  11825.65 213627.60 273758.95 198366.26      0.00  66634.13 331566.88
 [15] 251378.71  45416.83 602878.69  76128.17 361629.19 153484.84 240215.77
 [etc, 100 elements]

I think this is essentially the same as your solution but only uses BSR (Base, Stable, R) code (except for the bit of dplyr I copied from you and the sf package of course).

Also, I've raised this as a new feature request on the sf github site.

  • 6
    That feature request is now implemented; the way to do this is now st_distance(g1, g2, by_element = TRUE).
    – karldw
    Jul 26, 2017 at 16:17

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