Samantha Taylor: Partnerships to action
Samantha Taylor has, in her past, worked variously in academia, research and development, government, and in the private sector. Cut to the present, and she is working across all of these areas.
In this interview we find out a little more about Samantha’s background, career path, and her thoughts on some important transport issues.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you work now and the sort of work you do?
I’m at the Australian Road Research Board, also known as ARRB.
Until late last year I was National Leader of the Sustainability and Resilience group at ARRB, working predominantly with government to support sustainability principles like using recycled materials in transport infrastructure, electric vehicle deployment, supporting circular economy principles in transport, deployment of semi-automated vehicles, and evaluating emissions in road construction.
I’m presently the National Partnerships Leader and my role is focussed on building relationships with ARRB’s major partners, so that as a team we can achieve good things for society and support good decision making. The present focus of government on infrastructure through a sustainability and environment lens, is very exciting.
Sometimes these days you have to ask people to explain their job titles in order to more fully understand their role. So, to yours …
My role in partnerships focusses on developing relationships with government. ARRB has traditionally had an applied research perspective. We want to make our research more practical and implementable, so we want to engage, and develop relationships and partnerships to test our research and discoveries.
Right now it’s all about learning by doing, about true collaboration, and my job is to develop those relationships, and identify where we can work together, where we’ve got mutual interests with other organisations, other parties. Mainly government, but sometimes private sector as well.
And are you able to talk towards the sort of partnerships you’re working on at the moment? Anything you can discuss?
At the moment we’re working with Victoria’s Major Transport Infrastructure Authority, and the Victorian government has just released its Circular Economy policy, as well as its Recycled First policy. In particular how recycled materials can be incorporated into transport infrastructure.
I’m leading the Technical Stream within Ecologiq (purposely greener infrastructure program), and trying to get some of the research and the trials implemented in practice as quickly as possible, so that there’s a research cycle to replicate the circular economy, if you like, to say, ‘Okay, well this is the research, these are the trials, which projects would be good to actually validate that on a larger scale?’ Rather than wait years and years which might have happened in the past, to actually implement those materials.
It’s about managing risk, but really it’s about the relationships. At the end of the day it’s about engagement, sharing problems and opportunities, and making sure that you’re mitigating any risks, doing due diligence and monitoring so that when problems arise the team can quickly respond. I mean, some things you can’t fast track, but a lot of things you can, just by communication and knowledge transfer.
And jumping back a bit, prior to ARRB, where were you before that?
Before ARRB, I spent a decade with the Department of Transport / Department of Infrastructure managing projects in the transport infrastructure portfolio.
And before that I was in consulting and prior to that, in academia. I’ve really got the government, private sector, and academia research and development all covered in terms of experience.
Fortunately that provides me with a variety of experiences and means I’m well placed in terms of my current partnership role because I’m able to see things from a lot of different perspectives and that supports win/win outcomes because I can understand what other stakeholders want and need out of the relationship as well.
They’re two quite rarefied areas, so it’s good that you can talk both languages. You mentioned academia. Where did you study and what did you do?
I completed a Bachelor of Civil Engineering at Monash University and then did a research Master’s degree. The research degree was very helpful, although I wouldn’t say I actually enjoyed it. It was very educational and taught me a lot of things which are now invaluable in terms of my career.
Research teaches you that there are more questions than answers in transport – and in life – that answers are complex, contextual and influenced by the observer. Research taught me that asking questions and applying rigour, and not believing everything you read or everything you see in terms of data, analysis or statistics is the way to make sense of data and information. You could say research has taught me to be a healthy sceptic.
After the Master’s I ended up being an academic at that same institution in Department of Civil Engineering, specifically in the Institute of Transport Studies. That was a coincidence I ended up doing all those things at Monash University; I had not planned my career or education to be predominantly at Monash.
What was your research in prior to, as a PhD, and what was your area in the university? What were you teaching?
I was teaching transport policy, traffic engineering and management, and data analysis and statistics to postgraduate students. So many of the students I had the pleasure of teaching are now in key positions in government and industry. While teaching I was also doing research into logistics and urban freight.
My thesis was in urban goods movement, and involved analysing tonnages, trips, journeys and origins and destinations, on the network, and how the manifestation of that relates back to the operational framework of a company.
It was really interesting and required me to understand the culture of trucking as well as the data to see what it is that data is saying in terms of freight operations. The answers are not always obvious, and it still isn’t always logical from an outside perspective. Freight is a complex area.
You’ve actually jumped to my next question there. I was going to ask what year was that research in, and have you found much is now different?
Well yes, the research was quite some time ago now. It finished in 1996 and probably for the 15 years after that, it was still highly relevant to that work that I did. Still the fundamental principles are the same, and that is that often freight involves ego, power, culture, economics and data. There’s an assumption that it’s efficient. It is efficient in some areas, and in others, but as a whole system it’s not.
My research showed that there are a lot of gains that could be made in terms of overall operational efficiency gain, through looking at the whole system from multiple lens.
Just one more question I forgot about your background. To date, what’s the projector piece of work you’ve been most proud of?
Oh gosh, that is a good question.
You can say, ‘Everything!’
Ha ha! OK everything! Seriously, every project has a least one nugget of gold information that helps deepen my knowledge. My attitude is that I always want to find insight, gain an understanding and share with the team. Because I think we’re more efficient and more effective when we work together. With goodwill we find better outcomes. And so probably the research I’m most proud of is helping others to identify insights that help them get the job done.
Now, to step away from what you’ve actually done and into what you actually think, if you were given an unlimited budget and no time restraints, what transport project or piece of work would you like to see happen, that would have an appreciable impact?
One of my passions right now is the Fishermans Bend precinct, just outside of Melbourne’s CBD. I’d love to see that precinct transformed into a future mobility precinct where we’ve got some automated and connected vehicles, we’ve got active transport, we’ve got micro-mobility, and we’ve got out-of-hours delivery for freight.
Where we can actually see the ecosystem of transport operating with mass transport, which would be by way of a tram, whether that’s a trackless tram or alternative tram, and how that integrates with all the other forms of transport. Rather than focus on just cars or just automation or just this, to really have an integrated system is something I’m very interested in.
It would include electric vehicles, so low emissions, sustainability, encouraging people to walk, that they feel connected, that there’s a community, and that it’s green and a pleasant place to be. Trialling all of that as an ecosystem would be something that I would enjoy seeing.
Actually, as I sit here, I’m right in the middle of where that will all happen. Do you hold out great hope for all of those things you just mentioned?
Where there is a will, there is a way. With COVID-19, who knows what’s possible? Things can change quickly. It’s yet to be done in Australia, there are not many places in the world where they’ve been successfully done … although Europe seems to do ecosystems quite well.
To implement in an Australian context and demonstrate integration of modes in a community would be great. A lot of people from industry, government, local communities and the not-for-profit sector would find it interesting and useful.
I agree. Same hypothetical question, but this time the budget is limited and so is the time frame. Again, what would you think you could get up and running quickly and cheaply that would have a good impact?
Again, I’m still going to focus on the Fishermans Bend area, or an urban centre. There’s a lot that can be done in terms of active transport and converting those 40% of trips that are less than four kilometres, to some kind of micromobility, whether it’s an innovative vehicle, whether it’s a scooter, whether it’s walking, I would love to see more road space dedicated to those kinds of vehicles in a precinct. Where there is lots of walking people almost always feel safer.
Back to you, in terms of last mile, what do you think we could do quite quickly that would drastically help with the white van problem in cities?
Co-design is the easiest way to make gains in last mile. And a freight quality partnership is really an old, rather unsexy term for the concept of co-design. Co-design is principally about collaboration between freight operators, retailers, the city council, local council, to bring everyone around the table to say, ‘Okay, these are all the challenges, here is my problem, how can we collectively make the system work better and with fewer environmental impacts?’ That would involve things like electric vehicles for deliveries out of hours, for example.
Smaller vehicles that can access tight locations have less issues with safety in the city, and really just getting the organisations to sit around the table and identify what the problems are, and then take the steps toward solving them. There have been some great results overseas in New York City, Gothenburg, Paris, numerous cities around the world, Japan, and the like. Each city has implemented a bit differently, but with the right leader – a passionate champion – good will from stakeholders, some funding, you could really make some positive changes.
On a similar topic, robot delivery machines, how workable do you think they are in a city, where there is a lot of competition for space?
I’m sure there’s a place for them in the future. We’ll need to redesign the cities a little bit to make robotics and people movement work well.
There is a Complete Streets framework, for example, which presents options of concepts on how streets operate. This encompasses property boundary to property boundary, and once we get that complete street approach, which is more of the ecosystem, then there’ll be less scepticism about how the robotics work in a sympathetic way with unpredictable pedestrian movements.
I think you’re right that the city needs to be redesigned for them to really be a viable option.
You did a bit of work around the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and freight, didn’t you?
What did that involve?
I worked with the City of Gold Coast to establish trialling out-of-hours deliveries prior to the Games. The Commonwealth Games required parts of the Gold Coast to shut down to reduce the risk of terrorism, and to facilitate athlete and spectator safety. As a result, there were multiple curfews.
For last mile freight it was really about how do we ensure essential deliveries can be made, and how do we trial deliveries and prepare industry for the Games, so that they are not suddenly hit with, ‘Oh no, you can’t deliver there’? The process required stakeholder consultation and the identification of willing participants. We identified a possible eight different industries who were keen, and then we narrowed it down to three who were willing to work with us, put in the effort to develop a trial that worked for them, share the resultant data and show the before and after effects.
The trials involved us all working together and communicating to say, ‘OK, how could you adjust your scheduling to accommodate the changes that will be required for the Commonwealth Games?
Reassuringly, each trial showed there were benefits and industry were surprised at how easily it worked for them when they implemented those changes. I mean the challenge was trying to encourage changes to be permanent where possible, rather than industry returning to business as usual after the games – that’s actually quite common for big events.
For one supplier, the Games provided the catalyst to implement positive changes that they had been looking to implement for years. The Games gave them the impetus to make the change permanent, and that was a terrific result!
More than anything, it was about this joint effort between industry and City of Gold Coast, and the reporting was done by ARRB/Austroads. The project involved all working together to say, ‘How can we understand this? How can we make this work better so that everyone wins? It was a pleasing experience to be part of such a can-do team.
Last question, I think this is pretty apt for you, you’ve done a lot of things. Of all the areas in smart mobility and transport that there are, are there areas that you haven’t worked in yet that you would like to?
That’s a good question. I have worked on a wide range of transport things.
I’d really like to work on blending technology, circular economy, smart mobility and sustainability/environment. In other words, a true community minded ecosystem.
OK, how about this. I’d like to see things happen. Action. Not just action for the sake of it, but progress, movement and thoughtfulness. Not inertia. The opposite of inertia.
More than talk.
Yes! And one thing I’m really keen on, is pragmatism. Sometimes I feel, in a mobility or ITS space, people get carried away thinking ‘Oh, it’s so exciting. Everything’s going to be automated, the whole world.’
I think, ‘What! That’s great, but we’ve got a lot of people who do not want to give up that autonomy, so how are we going to progress to enjoying our lifestyle and not be controlled by Big Brother?’ Where we can drive in the countryside sometimes, but in the city, we can take a scooter or we can take an automated vehicle or a train, do you know what I mean? It’s not just automated vehicles, it’s trains connecting to automated vehicles or something like that. Again, the whole network.
I guess it shouldn’t be forgotten that at the heart of it all, it’s people.
Absolutely Scott, it’s all about people, the relationships we create and the society we contribute to. To live in a sustainable world, to nurture our environment – that’s what we should support professionally. Now that sounds like a nice place to live!