My City Science Journey: Dr Bob Hickish

30 May 2022

What’s your position at City Science?

Although my job title is Senior Transport Consultant and my role involves leading and supporting projects and being part of the team within the transport space, I didn’t come into City Science from a formal background in transport planning - my PhD is in engineering and before that I did a science degree - but I have a strong interest in transport, people behaviour and modelling as a route to decarbonisation.

As a result, within City Science, I’ve worked across multiple bespoke projects – in spaces where no one had done something similar before. It’s more of a research and development role to develop new tasks, new models and so on, that tend to often relate back to transport.

How did you come to be working at City Science?

After my PhD I did postdoctoral research looking at how to make the train networks better for users in order to get more people using them because, ultimately, that would help reduce emissions overall.

I built new software and undertook analysis, writing papers and presenting new methods that approached the situation differently. So, instead of looking at ways to speed journeys up, which has been a common route when looking at making trains more attractive, I analysed the impact of other ways of improving the user experience. A quick win, for example, might be to make the train ride more comfortable and that could result in as good an outcome as spending £billions on HS2 to speed the trip up.

After this, I was speaking to a recruitment consultant and they specifically directed me to City Science, saying they saw a fit for my skill set and values, and thought I would enjoy the constant innovation. After onboarding and doing some initial software development, the role has evolved into my current position.

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

I have a strong interest in outdoor activities like rock climbing, surfing and camping.

I also like music and especially making electronic music with synthesisers.

One of the great benefits of working at City Science has been the flexibility for me to work almost anywhere, and at any time. I've worked from my van (between surfs) in the Scottish Highlands and on the Cornish Coast.

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

I’ve been helping develop a National Freight Model, which is essentially a decision support tool, to help transport planners and the freight industry understand where freight vehicles are going and what they are carrying so they can make better decisions to help decarbonisation.

Freight is a big problem in terms of carbon because it represents approximately a fifth of vehicle emissions and is much less understood than passenger transport. I was technical lead on the project and we developed a cutting-edge model of freight vehicle movements comprising a large analytical and data processing element and model design elements that no one has done before.

Ultimately, it means planners and freight operators looking at freight flows will have a much better insight into the composition of freight vehicles on specific roads and therefore will be able to make much more informed decisions to drive decarbonisation.

The initial funding for the National Freight Model was provided by the Geospatial Commission and we are now evolving the tool for specific users and specific challenges.

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

Decarbonisation is really important to me and it’s the whole focus for City Science, so it’s a really perfect fit. And it gives me a way of using my skill set to help make a difference to something that really matters to me.

Ultimately, I love this planet and think it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. I hate the impact climate change is having, especially for people in parts of the world where they are often much less well off than we are here in the UK.

That’s not to say we won’t benefit too - I love the outdoors and if we could improve air quality it would improve my quality of life in Sheffield too.

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

I have quite a few gripes with policy and I wish our ambition was greater, although I do accept that the UK’s Net Zero Strategy is a reasonable first step. But what worries me is that I think there's a disconnect between ambition and delivery across all strands of government at the moment. So having a more coherent and focused approach, especially on delivery, would be the most important change I would like to see.