My City Science Journey: Grace Solsby

26 January 2022

What is your position at City Science?

I'm a transport consultant and I mainly work with clients in the public sector. For example, a council might come to City Science with transport issues, wanting us to help them find the most effective way of addressing their problems. Or sometimes, they might not have sufficient evidence to prove that their issue needs solving, which again is something we can help them with.

Ultimately, we help councils clarify what their priorities should be, as an example, for their town centre, assessing which areas need addressing most and working out what the options are. We always incorporate the overarching need to decarbonise transport, which is the trickiest bit, doing the background work to calculate what's actually viable, so we can find a solution that addresses their problem and allows them to move forward.

How did you come to be working at City Science?

I did my maths degree in Bristol at UWE, and got my Masters in Transport Engineering and Planning. I was always interested in numbers and I got to the end of uni and felt I wanted something real to apply it to, so I fell into transport. My background isn't in transport planning but in transport modelling. It's a bit like playing SimCity, in that it provides a virtual representation of an area that you can use to see the impact of certain changes.

I worked for seven years in a large consultancy where we would use very traditional modelling with software that was 20 or 30 years old and assumed that, for example, everybody would drive everywhere and the use of motorised vehicles would just get bigger and bigger. It got to a point where I thought 'we need to do something better!'. I think it happens to a lot of us - we grow up and we learn what our values and morals are.

Then I came across City Science. I remember having the interview and Simon (Lusby - Head of Transport) said to me we would never work on a scheme that we didn't agree with, we would never do any work that doesn't align with our values. And I thought this is the place that I need to work! It feels so good to be working towards something that I believe in. I have so much more exposure to clients and work that I would have never been allowed to do in my last company. So it's a big change, but I've enjoyed it.

Can you give an example of a project that you're either working on or have been working on?

We're currently working on a project in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, helping the council overcome the challenge of balancing different demands such as parking provision and access to East West Rail services with a real aspiration to improve the town centre for pedestrians and cyclists. Currently there's a lot of free parking in the centre, with many vehicle-dominated streets, but they don't have many people using buses or cycling. We're trying to pull together a big list of options for the town centre and filter them down into priorities aligned with what they need.

We are working with local councillors, East West Rail, and other important stakeholders that are involved in Bletchley's transport. We consider all the relevant evidence regarding, for example, collisions, walking quality, if there is wheelchair access, parking provisions - all sorts of transport-related issues. We need to consider the needs of all users to try and make sure we identify solutions that balance the needs of everybody, from prams and cyclists to HGVs, and work out how to prioritise the space. Then we pull this together in one master evidence document to use throughout the project to inform what needs to happen. The next phase is proposing the recommended solutions.

When you do get time off, what do you enjoy doing with your free time?

Being from the Lake District, I really enjoy going out walking wherever and whenever I can. My boyfriend and I actually converted our campervan ourselves, so we're always keen to make the most of it and go out camping and walking on the weekends. We're now looking into how we can electrify it to address carbon emissions from leisure trips

What motivates you most about the work you do at City Science?

It would probably be about how transport modelling needs to change, and we need to make it easier for councils to work towards transport decarbonisation. I think it's really unfair how it works at the moment; it's almost impossible for councils to test things quickly and cost-effectively because you have to pay a lot of money for the consultancy that holds the models to deliver any outputs - they charge thousands. It's frustrating because there's been a lot of work put into modelling already, and testing different approaches, but none of it is released for other councils to make use of easily.

But Cadence, City Science's innovative modelling software, is going to fundamentally change that because it's much more open, which is exciting and should make a real difference to councils we work with because this means they can more easily get answers to the problems they have on an ongoing basis. That said, we know there is huge competition - it's hard breaking into the modelling industry when you're trying to do something so different. But I know it'll have a hugely positive impact, and it's one of the reasons I left my last job to come here.

If you could wave a wand and change some aspect of policy or legislation, what would it be and why?

There's huge potential to expand the role of walking and cycling in society, but the money doesn't seem to go to the right places. I would want the government to stop putting so much money towards cars and vehicles and direct it towards walking and cycling and buses, which currently get a tiny proportion of the funding given to major road infrastructure schemes.