Platform as a platform

This afternoon, as I was getting off the tube, I looked at the railway platform, and wondered how it compared to “platforms” as we now know in the context of “platform economics“. For those of you under a rock, platform economics talks about the economics of “platforms” that bring together two sides of a market to interact.

In that sense, Uber is a platform connecting drivers to passengers. Ebay is a platform connecting buyers and sellers of used goods. Paypal is a platform connecting people who want to pay and those who want to receive payment. And so forth (these are all textbook examples nowadays).

So is the railway platform a platform? And if not, is it correct that we refer to entities that run two-sided markets as platforms (arguably, the most intuitive meaning of the word “platform” in the last hundred or so years has been in the railway context)? These were some of the questions I grappled with as I walked along the length of the platform at Ealing Broadway.

For those of you who’re not in the know, I’ve written a book on market design. The Takshashila Institution is publishing it, and the book should be out fairly soon (manuscript is complete, but there’s still plenty to do). In that book, I have a chapter on taxi marketplaces such as Uber/Lyft/Ola, and how they’ve transformed the efficiency of the taxi market. Before I introduce these characters, though, I draw the history of the taxi market.

In that, I talk about taxi stands. Taxi stands work in the way of Thomas Schelling’s focal points. Passengers go there because they know empty taxis will go there. Taxi drivers looking for passengers go there because they know passengers looking for taxis will go there. This way, rather than waiting at a random place looking for either a passenger or a ride, going to the taxi stand is rational. And in that sense, taxi stands are a platforms.

In a way, railway platforms are platform in the same sense. Think of a train that wants to pick up passengers, and passengers who want to travel on a train. If there were no designated pick up points, trains would stop at random places, which passengers would have to guess. While engine drivers could see passengers waiting by the side, stopping at random places might have meant that the train would have had to go empty.

From this perspective, railway platforms act as platforms – they are focal points where trains and passengers come together. Passengers wait there because they know trains stop there, and vice versa. And helpfully, there is an actual physical platform that elevates passengers to the height of the train door so they can get on and off easily!

Isn’t this a wonderful way to have complicated a rather simple concept?

The “Per Person” catch

Every time a travel agent sends you an itinerary for a tour package, look for the units of the cost. Usually it’s quoted in US Dollars per person. The funny thing is that this is how it is quoted even when it is just an accommodation package where two or three of you are going to share a room.

I wonder if this is a way to encourage more spending, since the customer perceives the total cost to be a much smaller number when he sees “per person” than when he sees an all-inclusive number.

Like for a forthcoming trip, the travel agent sends me an email saying “the hotel will send a taxi to pick you up at the airport at a cost of EUR 50 per person”!!

On a similar note, I realize travel agents love to bundle. When costs across several hotels and trains and taxis are bundled together and presented to you as an aggregate (“per person”, again), it is easy for them to pass on overheads to you without you figuring out where exactly that overhead went.

There have been times in the past when I’ve received packages from travel agents, then tried to purchase each component of that package online, and found that the total cost of buying the parts separately is approximately half the bundled cost that travel agents impose!