Joshua Jiao - My City Science Journey

22 June 2023

What’s your position at City Science (and what does that mean)?

I am a Principal Transport Consultant and Modeller.

This means I focus on projects that involve transport modelling and data analysis. In particular, I put together the technical aspects of projects and oversee the development of the analytical and modelling work.

I also lead the development of our strategic modelling market area and sometimes take on the project manager role for our modelling and data analytics projects.

How did you come to be working at City Science?

I’ve been here about 18 months now, having previously been at Arcadis for 4 years. There, I was also involved in transport modelling and economic appraisal, and spent a lot of time on developing transport models such as the Lower Thames Area Model.

I moved to City Science for two main reasons: first, I enjoy innovation and City Science has built its reputation in modelling innovations and many other areas that haven’t yet been standardised, such as the transport decarbonisation pathway.

I was in academia at Cambridge University before Arcadis and although I enjoyed research, I wanted to apply the research to real-world problems. However, I then found that most of the projects I was working on were using accepted, standardised approaches. This is understandable, but sometimes, in my opinion, the process overlooked important issues, such as social and environmental impacts.

At City Science, I feel I have the best of both worlds - revisiting original research and developing innovative methodologies for applying that research to new, real-world issues.

The second reason I moved to City Science was because of the company’s underlying commitment to decarbonisation, which runs through everything it does.

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

I’ve really enjoyed working on our walking and cycling modelling. We’ve adopted some of the approaches used in traditional highway modelling, but we’ve adapted these standard methods to recognise that active travel is very different.

For example, road modelling is very dependent on congestion, but congestion is not a critical factor in active travel modelling. By contrast, the cycling network attributes what is called ‘Level of Traffic Stress’ - where heavy usage by vehicles makes active traffic less attractive - as a significant factor based on existing studies. We reviewed the original academic research papers and developed methodologies for applying them to this particular issue.

This work has been used in our Liverpool Walk and Cycle Model and Thurrock Walk and Cycle Model, where the planning officer is now able to use our tool to test walking and cycling interventions. This was not possible in the conventional, highway-focused transport models, where the active travel mode was either overlooked or represented very briefly, and it’s great to see academic knowledge being used to help a real-world situation.

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

Again, it’s the way we use innovative thinking: both in terms of innovating on how we model and deciding what is to be modelled.

More established companies don’t seem especially bothered by this, happily focussing on what has worked for them in the past. However, technologies are changing at an unprecedented rate, and so are people’s behaviours, so it bothers me that people would think about using the same, old analytical methods as 20-30 years ago.

More importantly, we are using innovations to tackle issues that will result in people changing their behaviour and making more sustainable choices. This is vital and urgent - for the sake of our well-being and the planet.

Ultimately, everything City Science does is built on a commitment to decarbonisation and that makes it all more meaningful to me.

What do you enjoy doing with your free time?

I love learning new things and although I already have an undergraduate degree, a post-graduate degree and a doctorate, City Science is sponsoring me to do another Master’s Degree at University College London.

This is on transport and city planning and is more about the qualitative issues in transport related to land use planning, as opposed to the more quantitative approach my previous qualifications focussed on.

Away from work and learning, I love getting outdoors and being active with my family. Whether that’s skiing, spending time in the Lake District or something else, we enjoy keeping busy.

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

I’m not that close to the policy-making process, but it strikes me that transport investment decisions put so much weight on economic benefits through Cost-Benefit Analyses (CBA). In my opinion, it is comparing incomplete benefits with, more importantly, incomplete costs, and unavoidably, this skews decisions towards ‘more of the same’ rather than encouraging a shift to new approaches.

For example, a new road scheme that just shaves, say, a minute off a typical journey - which is a negligible benefit from a traveller’s point of view - could score well on the CBA Appraisal Summary Table (AST) if there is a large enough volume of people using the road.

On the contrary, a bus service in a rural area would have a relatively smaller patronage (unavoidably) compared with the costs, meaning it would score poorly in the CBA. But how about the costs to social equity which are not represented in the framework? By this I mean, for example, the costs to people who cannot afford to live closer to their working place and have no access to cars. This may be an oversimplification, but it hopefully explains why the CBA system is biased towards the existing most popular transport mode, which is usually cars.

The mode-specific planning and financing system can also make it difficult for us and our clients to make the case for change. It means, transport schemes are normally appraised for a single mode. For example, an appraisal on the location where a new road should be built instead of asking the question of whether it should be a road or perhaps a railway instead.

I appreciate that the reasons behind this are complicated, and one of them is the use of the CAB appraisal framework, as discussed earlier, because if the road scheme was assessed against the public transport scheme side by side, it is highly unlikely the public transport scheme would be favoured by the system for the reason explained earlier.

I’m not sure exactly what the answer to this challenge is, but a new approach to assess the proposed projects that has a more holistic, balanced weighting would be a good start.