Imagine that you want to go from your kitchen to your dining room.

But first, you have to walk to the end of the garden and back
before getting to your dinner table.
That is hub and spoke transportation.

Why on earth would you do that?

You wouldn’t, would you.

Let’s imagine a – slightly – less absurd situation. You are comfortably at home, and your parents live down the road, waiting for you to dig in to the Sunday roast.

But someone, somewhere, decided that you can’t just walk down the road directly, because that would be too easy.

For some reason you have no control over, you must get from your home, into the city center before continuing your journey to where you need to be, i.e. over at your parents’ house. In the meantime, your family is still waiting for you and the Yorkshire puddings are getting cold.

Imagine that at the end of the day, you have to anticipate going back through the city center to go home, just up the road. Meaning you have to leave the family early, making your stay shorter and wasting time in transport.

Admittedly, this would be totally absurd in a Covid-19 confinement situation, so you would just decide to stay at home, given the risk of going through town twice.

But let’s be optimistic and let’s think about the day after. In this imaginary scenario, you would still be faced with having to make this absurd city center trip to see the family down the road.

What are the options to get to your family then? Two different models co-exist in the travel world.

Straightforward house-to-house walk, and “city center tour” models. In practice: “point-to-point” and “hub-and-spoke” models.

What exactly are “point-to-point” and “hub-and-spoke” models?

No magic here: the point-to-point model is where a person, decision, information or asset travels directly to the point where it is needed.

Hub-and-spoke is where a common point of contact centralizes everything and then re-directs said person, decision, information or asset to where it has to go. The image of a wheel is frequently used but slightly incorrect, in the way that travelling around the rim is not possible here.

Point to Point model vs Hub and Spoke.

The hub and spoke solution implies at least one stop in the middle of the journey, even if, at best, it is seamless. This seamlessness is the target all transport operations are aiming for, but hardly every manage to hit.

Remember connecting through Orly Airport in Paris, France, or through London Gatwick? Did that qualify as being a seamless experience?


Putting it that way, the hub-and-spoke system doesn’t look greatly efficient

That isn’t entirely true.

For those organizing or those part of that system, it is highly efficient for many reasons. Notably that it means fewer connections to manage and less complexity.

France, a highly centralized country for historical reasons, is the perfect example of the hub and spoke system. For the infrastructure, the hub and spoke system is great. All major train lines have Paris as their starting point. Same goes for the main French motorways. And if France doesn’t have the best motorways, it definitely has incredibly fast trains.

But the greatness of the model is theoretical: firstly, for the system to work well for you, you need many spokes and one ending near you, otherwise getting to a spoke is just another hassle to manage.

Secondly the hub terminal itself must work well. It centralized all things travelling along the spokes. Centralization is convenient in some cases, e.g. supermarkets. But if something goes wrong, or if too much is centralized at the same time, the terminal becomes a congestion center. And the spokes are still there, feeding a stomach which is already full.

At the end of the day, if the terminal is not 100% efficient, the whole system isn’t either, and passengers are left to deal with it. 

The hub and spoke model (pros and cons included) is not exclusive to transportation by the way. It also exists in management, and we have all been there. A company that operates with a hub and spoke management structure is a company “where significant decisions are referred to one’s formal boss rather than to whoever is best suited to make the call, regardless of hierarchical positioning”.

Exactly like in transport situations, Harvard Business Review authors considered it to be an outdated structure: “The management structure gave the company the ability to make decisions quickly in the early days. Now, though, it is slowing the organization down, due to its inherent inability to enable quick, cross-functional, collaborative decisions. »

OK, that’s not great. How about point-to-point then?

It sounds like a no-brainer: you are at home, you walk out the door, down the road and into your parent’s home and living-room.

Job done.

Everyone is happy.

No hassle, no waste of time.

Less energy used since the trip was shorter.

The Yorkshire puddings are saved.

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In management it’s the same: you need or have useful information? You knock on the person’s door or give him a call, regardless of the hierarchy. It’s in the best interest of the company as a whole and it avoids bottlenecks and internal politics. Fortunately, we have all been there too.

Going back in time a bit for another example where point-to-point was efficient: telecommunications, long before satellite communications. In the 50s, AT&T Long Lines used point-to-point microwave transmissions and radio relays with directional antennas as the most efficient way to make very long distance calls.

Let’s take a French example of all this. I was in a train the other day with a person going from Bordeaux to Annecy. She missed the morning plane and had to take a train to Paris, cross Paris to change stations, and then take a second train down to Annecy. Which arrived there with two hours delay. That means 1040 km with a connection, in 9 hours (delay included). A direct regional transport would have meant 1 hour and 20 minute flight to Geneva and then a quick drive to Annecy….

Just imagine being able to land in Annecy directly then… The regional point-to-point transport would have saved time and efforts.

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So point-to-point is the perfect solution when travelling?

That depends whose side you are on.

A direct route uses less time and energy if you compare similar transport solutions. Sure, point-to-point has a couple of drawbacks. The main and most obvious being that you multiply the number of points of contact needed. That’s a pain for the infrastructure, and in general for the travel organizers.

But at the end of the day, as a passenger and traveler, is that really your problem? Is it your job to support the infrastructure, or should the infrastructure find a way to be at your service?

Do you set the table and do the cooking in a restaurant?No, you don’t, where would be the fun in that? I’ll take a point-to-point then, à la carte

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