Travelling to the European Transport Conference in Milan - did we make the right choice?

17 October 2022

Growth Director Gavin Jackman reviews our attendance at the 2022 European Transport Conference (ETC) in Milan. He considers whether our decision to travel there was justified and reflects on the ongoing challenge organisations face in deciding whether the positive impact of attending conferences outweighs the carbon emissions that are inevitably produced in the process of travelling to them.

To go or not to go?

We had a lot of discussions about whether City Science should send representatives to the European Transport Conference in Milan before making the decision to attend. In many ways, our participation at conferences is crucial - they enable us to identify trends and understand policy developments while raising awareness of our services and our expertise in helping organisations decarbonise. We become part of the transport and energy ecosystem and get to participate in debates and knowledge transfer with partners and clients in a highly efficient manner… But we cannot ignore the emissions we create in travelling to conferences. This is an ongoing balancing act for us because every event we go to comes at a very real cost in terms of impact on the planet. After some internal debates, we made the decision that a small team would go to Milan - as explained in my previous blog - but that we would go by train to minimise our carbon emissions. Our data analysts calculated this would result in a 96% emissions saving - or nearly one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent - compared with the team flying.

How was the experience of travelling to Milan (and back) by train?

  • Train travel was possible and the actual train journeys were relatively smooth (if long!)
  • Border control was smooth at each end, and the customer service reps were friendly, helpful and not as stressed as normal with airlines.
  • A delay on the way out meant three of our party of UK travellers were stuck in Paris for the night when they missed their Paris to Milan connection (we await the results of the claim back from Eurostar..)
  • WiFi (connectivity) was really good on the trains in mainland Europe but very poor on Eurostar (and the UK side specifically). Ironically, when travelling at 293kph down to Milan we had great service, but when it slowed to go past stations, the connection speed dropped. Oh, and don’t expect much connectivity as you go through the Alps…
  • Overall, travelling by train could have been easier and more convenient. Hopefully one day it will be. But we don’t have the luxury of waiting until then before using trains when we can instead of flying.

What did we get out of attending ETC and was it worth it?

Exposing City Science to a wider, international audience - City Science does well maximising the opportunities conferences bring at home in the UK, but climate change and decarbonisation are global issues and it is crucial to communicate with a larger, global audience. ETC provided us with the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from across Europe (and beyond!) to focus on behaviour change and the impact of the climate emergency and COVID-19 on long-term travel patterns, and gain a European perspective to take back to our UK projects. We went to the event to listen, learn, and improve our skills. To understand the European perspective on active travel and decarbonisation, and understand where the rest of Europe is going with their strategies to address the carbon impact of transportation. In the UK, we think we are good at setting the standard, but what can we learn from the best approaches elsewhere? What can we adopt from European cities? What are other businesses doing to innovate and advance the decarbonisation process? This was a hugely valuable part of the overall experience and we all came home inspired and energised, despite the long hours and lack of sleep.

Networking, meeting new people and building relationships - ETC offers a variety of forums to promote networking and facilitate conversation. Aoife and I each presented findings from our work, and this gave us the opportunity to discuss things informally and take part in Q&A sessions about our approaches and goals for the projects. We also went to a discussion about how the transportation system is changing and how we at City Science, as transportation and decarbonisation experts, can help. This sparked interesting conversations internally about how we can use our diverse backgrounds and utilise our software development talents to give the market the new tools it needs. It was great to see the appetite for change and for making a difference to the impact of transport on the environment. To be able to introduce ourselves as a growing company that is trying to forge a path in this area was both gratifying, and hopefully inspiring to others - so much is happening in different institutions across Europe, and coming together in Milan was a great way to share what we can do while also learning lessons from others. Overall, it was wonderful to witness the desire for change and for reducing the environmental impact of transportation. It’s a huge challenge, but a lot of progress is being made across Europe, so coming together in Milan was a terrific way to share what we can accomplish while also learning from others. It was good to feel that City Science is a part of the solution.

Final thoughts

Our attendance at the event seemed to be valuable in many ways. It’s not obvious we would have achieved anywhere near as much attending remotely, especially in terms of the ad hoc conversations and opportunity to make valuable new connections. The trip resulted in long days, fantastic conversations and a fresh perspective on many crucial transport-related decarbonisation issues. Being at one event for several days seemed to facilitate lively and more in-depth discussions and it led to a number of new connections and relationships that have continued to develop subsequently. We’re pleased to have shown that international travel by train is possible, if not as easy as we would like it to be yet. However, the jury remains out on whether we should be travelling, especially internationally, to business events. If so, under what circumstances? What should be the new rules? We don't have any immediate answers but welcome being part of the ongoing debate.