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Episode 044: Transit Unplugged Podcast - Emma Thomas
Emma Thomas - Transport Canberra

“Our whole mission is about making the city attractive, safe, and easy to move around.”

We continue with part five of our seven-part series of Transit Unplugged in the land Down Under. This week we are joined by Emma Thomas, former Director-General at Transport Canberra. Thomas started her career as an aeronautical engineer and joined the Air Force. She discusses how Transport Canberra “puts the livability in Canberra.” Thomas also talks how public transit plays into our well-being (mental health and health of a city), and new ways to make people more mobile – Transport Canberra’s new light rail line, the importance of data and journey planning, and the potential of new transportation modes.

If you want to know more about Transport Canberra, you can check out their website.

Remember to check out to learn from top transit professionals and stay up to date to catch all the latest episodes.

Show Transcript

Paul Comfort : I'm Paul Comfort, welcome to this special edition of the award-winning podcast, Transit Unplugged.

On today's episode, we continue with our seven-part series on transit in the land down under of Australia. On this episode, I visited with Emma Thomas, who's director general of the transit system in the federal capital city of Australia, Canberra. Canberra has a bus system and just opened up a brand-new light rail or tram system there, and Emma talks about her transit systems, some of the innovations they have going on, her background and her approach toward managing this system. I think you'll find this a fascinating look inside a transit system in a federal capital city and also what it takes to run one there in a very political environment. All that, on this episode of Transit Unplugged.

Intro : What does it mean to be a successful public transit agency? What are you doing to lead the way? It's time to learn from the top transit professionals in North America. This is Transit Unplugged with your host, Paul Comfort.

Paul Comfort : Welcome to Transit Unplugged. I'm your host Paul Comfort and excited to be here today with Emma Thomas, director general of Transport Canberra and city services, which is the capital of Australia, as we continue our Transit Unplugged Australia tour, transit down under. Thanks for being with us today, Emma.

Emma Thomas : You're welcome, Paul. Thank you for having me.

Paul Comfort : Yes, you were just in an association meeting here with a bunch of your other CEOs. Why don't you tell us about, since you're from the federal city and you oversee the transit system there, which is very similar to Washington DC in America, tell us about transit as a whole in Australia? Nobody's told me about that yet. Can you give us kind of an overall view and then bring it down to your system in the capital city?

Emma Thomas : Well, like the rest of the world, Australia has a lot of people that reside in cities today. We have large populations in our cities and large growing populations in our cities. The subject of public transport particularly has become very popular. It's very important for people's lives, how they move around cities, where they don't want to spend lots of time in congestion, lots of time not doing the things that they really want to do. The conversation has definitely increased over the last few years to really focus on those transit systems across Australia.

Paul Comfort : And it seems like Australia is a very currently a very pro-transit country. We were just in this city of Melbourne yesterday, and the Prime Minister was here announcing a brand-new project about transit. All the CEOs we've talked to so far have been very excited about the investment that's coming. At their state level as well into transport. Are you seeing this as a great time to be in transit here in Australia?

Emma Thomas : It's an awesome time to be involved in transit. There is an unprecedented infrastructure investment going on across the country. A lot of people point to the pipeline of projects that exist across the country and just how much that has increased over time. It comes with a cost of resources and making sure we have enough resources to put into these projects, but we shouldn't let that stop us. All the projects are getting a lot of attention right now.

Paul Comfort : That's good. Tell us about your system and what you oversee. Kind of the scope of service and what type of buses, rail, that kind of stuff.

Emma Thomas : Transport Canberra is primarily today about buses. We have a bus network that's about something over 400 buses. For a population in Canberra of over 400,000 people. We're a small city but growing quite quickly like the rest of the Australian cities. The government announced a number of years ago that they were going to build and invest in light rail in Canberra and so for the past five years we've been building up the light rail project. It's just about to start now.

Paul Comfort : How exciting.

Emma Thomas : We're expecting next month, April, that we will have the first operational light rail line going in Canberra. We're very much interested in an integrated transport system, similar, same ticketing system, seamless travel for people where they can move from bus to light rail and also starting to explore how we bring in ride-share, exploring how we bring in bike-share into the systems that we see today.

Paul Comfort : That's great. How did you end up a CEO of the capital of Australia's transit system?

Emma Thomas : My goodness. It's a bit of a long story. I'm an aeronautical engineer.

Paul Comfort : Really?

Emma Thomas : Yes. I joined the Air Force many, many years ago and then migrated to working for Boeing for a long time. Then had a complete change and started working in different transport industries. I worked in roads and road infrastructure and then I went to South Australia where I was the rail commissioner down there and also looked after all of the public transport system, before moving to Canberra to build light rail.

Paul Comfort : Are you from Australia?

Emma Thomas : Yes.

Paul Comfort : You're one of the only CEOs we've talked to that is.

Emma Thomas : Yay!

Paul Comfort : We've got French and British and now Australian. It's obvious - you're a woman - it's an industry that seems to be dominated still, at the top levels, by men which I'm one. But tell us a little bit about women in transport. We had Women's Day this last week, across the world.

Emma Thomas : There are remarkable women throughout the whole industry. I think sometimes we don't look hard enough to find them and bring them into things. I'm very fortunate in my transport organization. I have three very senior women within my organization. We've got to make sure that we're keeping the progression of women going through. There's that old adage you can't be what you can't see.

Paul Comfort : That's good.

Emma Thomas : If people can't see women at the top of these companies, then maybe they just don't know that that's available to them.

Paul Comfort : And how long have you been in the role of CEO?

Emma Thomas : I've been in this role, I've been in Canberra for five years, and I was the CEO of the rail project, but now I'm looking after all of Transport Canberra. As well as city services. I also look after roads.

Paul Comfort : Tell us about that. What's that?

Emma Thomas : Roads and some of the municipal services. Storm waters, streetlights, all of these things.

Paul Comfort : Is that right? That's all under you?

Emma Thomas : Footpaths, they all contribute to our overall transport network, so I think it's a great thing to have those elements brought together.

Paul Comfort : I've got a good friend who's name is Tina Quigley, and she is CEO of Las Vegas' transit system, and she started in the aviation industry and worked at the airport there, and she also is over the roads and the lights and a lot of the other stuff. Very similar.

Emma Thomas : Interesting. You'll have to hook us up.

Paul Comfort : She's great. She travels all over the world and talks and very innovative like I know you are. Tell us the agency itself, talk about your agency. The number of employees and maybe budget and how it's structured. Do you report to a board or the mayor? Tell us kind of that, how it works.

Emma Thomas : I report to a minister or actually two ministers within the ACT, Australian Capital Territory.

Paul Comfort : Okay, that's what ACT stands for.

Emma Thomas : Yeah, is the province or state and Canberra is the capital of that as well as the capital of Australia.

Paul Comfort : It was set up to be like a capital city like Washington, DC, is?

Emma Thomas : Yeah.

Paul Comfort : Where land was carved out of neighboring areas and said, "This is going to be our federal city."

Emma Thomas : That's correct. We have 1,600 employees within my organization. Not all of those are involved in transport. Some of them are involved in the municipal services as well. I always like to say, "Our whole mission is about making the city attractive, safe and easy to move around." That's really simply what we do, and we want to be a competitive city in Canberra. We're competing on the world stage to get people to want to come here, want to set up their businesses. We provide quite an important role in making the city livable. I like to say, "We put the livability in Canberra." That's our role.

Paul Comfort : Do you operate paratransit as well? Separate service for people with disabilities.

Emma Thomas : We do. We have a flexible bus service. That flexible bus service is used for school transit, for children that might not be able to take ordinary school transport. And then between those school peaks, we use the service for a number of other opportunities. Like everywhere else, we're trying to use our resources as much as we can to serve as many people as we can.

Paul Comfort : Do you outsource any of your operations? Or are they all handled by your own employees?

Emma Thomas : No, they're all government run. We have done some work with Uber in Australia, in Canberra, where we do some first-mile, last-mile work because some of our late-night services, particularly in the summer where more people are out and about, Canberra is quite a cold city. Not as cold as North America granted, but it gets quite cold in the wintertime. But in the summer months, where there are long daylight hours, we're using Uber to, or we're working with Uber to help get people home.

Paul Comfort : Got you. And are you integrated into any other transit systems that connect into the city that go outside of the city? Do any other agencies come in and connect with them?

Emma Thomas : We do have other agencies in our border state, which is New South Wales there are some border services, bus services that come across the border because quite a lot of people live outside of Canberra and come into Canberra for work every day. But also, we're very interested, and we've been working with the New South Wales government to bring about a faster rail network between Sydney and Canberra. At the moment there is a rail line between Sydney and Canberra. It takes about four and a half hours. It's very long. It takes about three hours to drive.

Paul Comfort : Who runs that?

Emma Thomas : It's run by Sydney Trains so when you speak to Howard who will be able to talk to you about that. We're really keen. We think there's an enormous advantage to bringing people between the two cities a lot faster. One of the big conversations in Australia at the amount is about affordability and housing affordability because the cities are becoming quite expensive and if we can bring people closer together through transport, then we can get people into cities or towns where the affordability is much better in housing.

Paul Comfort : That's right, yeah. When I left the MTA Baltimore, we were studying a high-speed rail between Washington and Baltimore. The theory was, housing is very cheap in Baltimore, it's very expensive down there, and so you could almost create, you could level out the expenses. It sounds like what you're talking about there is that transport has a way so that you don't have to live right downtown, but it's definitely got to be quicker than four hours.

Emma Thomas : Four hours is no good. If we can get it sort of three hours or less, then your competitive with people's alternative choices.

Paul Comfort : That's right.

Emma Thomas : And also, with flying, they say, because once you start going through security and being there a certain amount of time ahead, then rail is becoming a lot more competitive in that timeframe.

Paul Comfort : That's right.

Emma Thomas : And then you can have a nice seat on your rail line. You can walk around. You can go to the bathroom. You can plug into Wi-Fi. You can have meals. It's great.

Paul Comfort : What's your vision for what you're doing for your overall transit system? Any new innovations you've got going on? Or you're envisioning?

Emma Thomas : Our government is really focused on sustainability and carbon emissions. The government has brought in an initiative to be a 100% renewable energy by 2020. What that means ...

Paul Comfort : That's like next year.

Emma Thomas : That is like next year. We're a very progressive city, and the people in the city are very supportive of moving towards this renewable energy. What that means, when you take out energy, the greatest source of carbon emissions is coming from transport. 60% once you take out energy. 60% of carbon emissions in Canberra are coming from transport. That's not all buses, that's private vehicles as well. Our focus is certainly on how we become more progressive and remove those carbon emissions.

Our focus is very much on whether we deal with an electric vehicle, hydrogen vehicle. What are the various options that are available to us right now? We're sitting at a time, a cusp in history where there's a lot of change and the manufacturers really haven't started to manufacture in anger yet with these new vehicle types. It's all a bit trial and error. We've been trialing a couple of electric buses, an electric hybrid bus.

Paul Comfort : How about hydrogen? Have you done anything there?

Emma Thomas : We haven't done anything with hydrogen yet. I was talking to some people in Western Australia who trialed hydrogen for quite some time. We're just trying to get connected with various groups that are doing it because if we have big electric fleet, we need to understand what that does to the power grid. We don't want to dim all the lights of the suburbs and the bus depot when we come home and plug them all in at night. But also, what else can you do with these batteries that are full of energy storage?

Paul Comfort : I need to connect you then, and I will, with Lauren Skiver. Lauren is CEO of SunLine Transit in Coachella Valley California. She is the leader of hydrogen-powered buses in America. She is creating a hydrogen university where they're training people how to do it.

Emma Thomas : Fantastic.

Paul Comfort : She's actually creating a generator to generate hydrogen, which she'll sell back into the market. When we're done, I'll get you her contact info.

Emma Thomas : Excellent. Deal.

Paul Comfort : Yeah, there you go. I'm fascinated by that. Kind of blue sky thinking. We're constantly looking for, as you mentioned, transport, the way I've broken it down personally is, mobility is life. If you can move around, you can have a life. People that are stuck in a nursing home or stuck in their own home and they can't get out for some reason, they don't really have much of a life, and they need mobility to get them out. Transport equals mobility, so transport equals life. That's my Einstein formula I've come up with.

Emma Thomas : I have a theory that sort of that pulls on from that is that there's a lot of conversation in the world at the moment about mental health, and I think there's a really big correlation between how easy it is to transit, have transport around you and what that environment looks like and your mental health.

Paul Comfort : That's beautiful.

Emma Thomas : If you think of people getting so frustrated or upset or stressed by the pressure of just trying to get from point A to point B, I think there's a really big avenue of research and study and understanding of just what creates a better lifestyle for us all. Public transport, there's been plenty of studies to show that people are happier when they're on public transport because they don't have to worry about the driver that cuts them off. All these other things that happen in their day. In fact, I saw a TED Talk that was done by a couple of guys from the US, a couple of years ago, who was trying to do a journey planner that allowed you to pick your happiest route to work.

Paul Comfort : I love that.

Emma Thomas : It was for active travel, which was great, but I think that there's a real notion in that that if you pick the route that is likely to be the calmest or most peaceful, we haven't built that into our journey planners.

Paul Comfort : No, we haven't.

Emma Thomas : And I think there's a great opportunity to do that.

Paul Comfort : I love that. That's really interesting.

Emma Thomas : I think it is really interesting. And then you take that to your health, and I think it was Oklahoma City, maybe I read a report from there where they had a problem with obesity in the city which is something, we're all probably grappling with across the western world.

Emma Thomas : They had focused on public transport as being part of the answer to that because when we use public transport, we all walk more. We have kind of, when we're driving from point to point and not, and just getting out of the car and getting straight to where we want to go, that might be convenient, but we're not moving as much. Cities where there's lots of public transport, London, New York, where you would never take a car, you think about how much more you walk during that time.

Paul Comfort : That's true.

Emma Thomas : I'm quite interested as well in our journey planning, how we give people the ability in journey planning to give them the best health outcomes.

Paul Comfort : That's interesting. I don't think I've ever heard anybody talk about that before.

Emma Thomas : Well I'm very interested in that.

Paul Comfort : The role of transport in ...

Emma Thomas : In health.

Paul Comfort : The health of your city.

Emma Thomas : That right. And health is becoming such a big cost and burden to society. I think transport needs to play its part in getting involved in this conversation and really helping people to make choices that give them a contribution to their health.

Paul Comfort : That's good. I was with a guy today that is a researcher here. His name is Professor Graham Curry.

Emma Thomas : Oh yeah, I know Graham.

Paul Comfort : You should ask him to study that.

Emma Thomas : I should ask him to study that. He does great studies, Graham.

Paul Comfort : Yeah. You've talked about the health side of things, what else do you love about public transport and what is it that makes it such a special avenue? I know that when I used to work, especially in paratransit, I would come home every night feeling very fulfilled. I feel like I'd really helped people that need it the most. People with disabilities that would be stuck in their home or stuck in an institution if we couldn't provide them a lifestyle choice of being able to move. What do you love about transit?

Emma Thomas : Our people at the front line are the most caring, compassionate people you can see in any profession. I've seen them just do so many things that are just all about human nature and being kind to people. And they deal with that every day. I really do love that contribution to the city that it makes. At a big-picture level, public transport contributes to the economic energy of a city. You move that many people around at once anywhere, then the city's much better off for it. I think the side of public transport that worries me at the moment, and it's been a conversation we've had today and with other CEOs is that of antisocial behavior which seems to be on the rise. We link that back to the earlier conversation of mental health and other pressures that people have in their lives, but our front-line people are experiencing more than ever, difficult situations where they're confronted with people who are either physically assaulting them, verbally assaulting them. It's a difficult job, and we're all working on trying and finding ways to protect our people for them.

Paul Comfort : That's good. Today you were at a how do say?

Emma Thomas : Australasian.

Paul Comfort : Australasian.

Emma Thomas : Rail association.

Paul Comfort : Rail association board meeting. We have a similar organization in America called APTA, American Public Transit Association. A lot of other places have UITP. Tell us about the role of this organization here in Australia and the kind of things you all do together.

Emma Thomas : This is an industry body that represents rail and rail interests in Australia across all parts of rail, not just passenger transport.

Paul Comfort : Freight as well?

Emma Thomas : That also does freight as well. And all parts of the industry because the industry's pretty broad in rail. There are consultants, and there are different groups that do different things. It's about understanding just how we can bring different parts. We share common interests. This is about the conversation across those common interests to make sure that we can, as a whole industry, progress.

Paul Comfort : That's good. Earlier today, I saw you this morning, when I was headed up to speak at a group of your association on asset management. And all your mid-level managers and upper-level managers that are working on asset management are sharing best practices. That's a wonderful, real working, practical organization.

Emma Thomas : Yes. I just talked about antisocial behavior. We have a group of similar people across all of our organizations who are getting together to talk about best practice there. We talk about customer experience. We've got lots of different groups that are doing lots of different things but the whole idea to share that best practice. Not in areas where people are necessarily competing, but we think particularly area like safety. There is no competition. We all want to be the safest.

Paul Comfort : What are you doing in your city, you mentioned earlier maybe bike-share and other sharing programs. Talk about that's all in and how you're implementing that. Are you the aggregator of those services? Or are private companies coming in and kind of honing in on your territory?

Emma Thomas : We have private companies coming in. I think we were probably a few steps behind the whole notion where a city puts in a fixed docked, bike-share system and we were fortunate, not to have that system so private industry could come in and offer something. We're running a trial in Canberra at the moment. It's been pretty successful. People seem to be really responsible with the bike-share. We haven't seen, touch wood, some of the problems that other cities we've seen where bikes get used as forms of art.

Paul Comfort : What about scooters? Have you seen that happen yet?

Emma Thomas : Canberra would be a great place for electric scooters, and we're having lots of conversations with people at the moment. We have to understand the safety aspects of that more than anything. We've been talking to Auckland and Brisbane who have loads of scooter use. I was up in Brisbane last weekend, and the people on scooters are everywhere. It's such a fantastic thing. We understand that the first-mile, last-mile problem around public transport seems to be a lot of people seem to be using these electric scooters to do that first-mile, last-mile thing. What a great solution for public transport. We just got to make sure we don't run over too many pedestrians and deal with all of the other things at the same time. There's a lot of anecdotal discussion about people ending up in hospital because they do go pretty quickly.

Paul Comfort : Yes, they do.

Emma Thomas : They're super fast.

Paul Comfort : I've almost been run over myself in Memphis. What about autonomous vehicles? What do you see happening here in Australia there?

Emma Thomas : We've had quite a few trials going on in specific cities. It hasn't been as quick as maybe other places. I think, in Canberra, we're running a trial with an organization called Seeing Machines. It's an Australian company, and that company is looking at the human reaction of being in an autonomous vehicle. Because we haven't really studied what that means to us in when we take the control from us altogether. That's an interesting sort of view of autonomous vehicles. We're really interested in whether we can do some stuff sooner. I think university campuses and sort of those sort of places where you have quite a big walking distance, but it's not really big enough to run a full-size bus service, seem to be good opportunities.

Paul Comfort : Yep, and I think also maybe expanding service into small areas where you can't fit a 40-foot bus. Are you operating large buses in your city?

Emma Thomas : Yes.

Paul Comfort : Do you also do kind of midsize buses, 30 footers?

Emma Thomas : Only for our flexible bus services.

Paul Comfort : Okay, yes. Right, that makes sense. I was in as I mentioned, Las Vegas earlier, they brought in a pilot, they've been running a pilot for about a year. They were the first ones in America to run that. In Switzerland, they're running one integrated right into the regular route service, an autonomous vehicle, and it is interesting to see people's responses. Right now, there are still people in the vehicle. Safety drivers, or whatever you want to call them. I think, over the next couple years, you'll see as the regulations catch up to what the marketplace is bringing, and they allow for some of that, it'll be interesting to see people will get out of a vehicle with really nobody at the controls.

Emma Thomas : It's a pretty exciting time because all of us can see the opportunity with autonomous vehicles. As we get older, as we have a greater aging population, losing your mobility is one of the most difficult things, as we were talking about earlier. I think where you see such a strong application no one will be able to stop it. It will be a stoppable force. We will always want to move, migrated towards that. I think we just still haven't worked out quite what the human reaction is going to be owning these vehicles and whether mass transit, of what the place of that is in amongst all of this new system and network. It'll be interesting to watch how that pans out.

Paul Comfort : Along that line, I know you speak at a lot of conferences and are a leader in our industry. Talk about some of the hot topics that you're talking about now when you go out and what are you seeing in the industry.

Emma Thomas : Certainly in Australia, the infrastructure boom and shortage of resources and skills.

Paul Comfort : $50 billion or something somebody told me.

Emma Thomas : Yes, it's massive and having enough skills to do that. It's a great time for the industry, but we can't just make engineers and technical tradespeople overnight to do all of this stuff. That is certainly a really hot topic of conversation and has the capacity in our industry to build all this stuff and operate. That's put a lot of pressure on the system, and so people are definitely talking about that.

Emma Thomas : The other thing, in some discussions about technology and smart cities, I think that people are coming to terms with what that means and what the opportunities are a lot more. We're seeing the data being able to be collected so much more easily and teams starting to really understand how they can use that data and I notice with my own team, when we're talking to bike-share or scooter-share or whatever we're talking to, the data comes up as something that's really important to us straight up so we can see where people are moving around and have better able to service their needs.

Paul Comfort : Having apps on your phone, smartphone apps, and being able to track not just when somebody gets on the bus but where that journey ends, is key.

Emma Thomas : That's right. And what combination of modes they're using for those journeys so we can help them with their choices. Because ultimately our job is to help the city move and if we're going to do that effectively then we've got masses of data available to us. The better we understand that, the more we can do our jobs well.

Paul Comfort : Very good. Is there any other topic that you wanted to talk about today?

Emma Thomas : No.

Paul Comfort : You've been very informative, and it's been a different angle than what I've talked with other people about. I guess the last question I wanted to ask you about is, we have listeners all over the world and for women who want to get involved in transportation, want to move up in their career ladder, what advice would you give them?

Emma Thomas : Don't think we should be restricted by thinking that it's going to be engineering degrees or something that's technical. There are so many avenues in public transport into the public transport system. We have ticketing systems - we need economics and accounting and communications. Such an important skill. I think it's not to be limited by what you think you bring to it but really to bring your diversity into the industry because public transport more than any other industry I've seen, is so diverse. It has such a different range of people who come from all walks of life, all different backgrounds, and we need that diversity to be successful. I would say, join an industry that people love. People find it difficult to tear themselves away from and really is going to create opportunities forever because as we grow as a civilization, we're always going to need to move.

Paul Comfort : That's right. And you're right. I haven't talked to any transit CEO who said, "I started out my career wanting to be the CEO or the director general of a transit system." But like you said, once you started, it is fulfilling. You are actually, you feel like you're doing something very important and it's mission oriented. So many of our millennials now, they want their job not just to be a way they make money, and it's about compensation, but it's really about aligning of their inner core values along with what they're doing for a living. It makes you feel like, I want to go to work. I feel good about what I'm doing.

Emma Thomas : We have the best graduate program ever. You talk about millennials. They are so engaged and so enthusiastic, and they share their passion for public transport because they want to be able to move easily and they can see it. My transport planning team are all pretty young and gung ho, and they just impress me every day by their passion that they share with the community.

Paul Comfort : That's wonderful. Emma Thomas, thank you for sharing your passion for public transit with us today as a leader, not only here in Australia but around the world - leading the capital city of Australia's transit system. Thank you so much for being with us.

Emma Thomas : Thank you, Paul, for the opportunity.

Outro : You've been listening to Transit Unplugged, powered by Trapeze Group. To stay up to date, subscribe on iTunes or Google Play. Or join the conversation at Thanks for listening.

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