Introducing Debbie Hopkins

Dr Debbie Hopkins joined the Department earlier this year as an Associate Professor in Human Geography. Whereas many academics tend to find their specialisms narrowing as time goes on, Dr Hopkins has an excitingly broad range of research interests. At the macro scale, these include the social dimensions of climate change and the movement of people, goods and waste around cities and urban environments. But she’s also looked at the gender dimensions of transport, in particular at the experiences of female truck drivers in a male-dominated occupation.

Her postdoctoral work at the Centre for Sustainability in Otago, New Zealand, looked both at household energy and at transport as part of an energy system. A large proportion of the country’s electricity consumption comes from renewables, which means that transport becomes more important as a source of carbon emissions. Research into young drivers led her to look at freight and trucking, and that interest continued when she returned to the UK. 

Transport isn’t just about people

Cities are becoming aware of the need to address environmental issues such as air pollution and climate change, says Dr Hopkins, which has led to the introduction of cycleways and low emission zones. But, she points out, this focus on people comes at the expense of thinking about how we transport goods into the city and waste out: ‘We wind up with cities that have lots of cycle lanes, but then we have trucks parked in cycle lanes, which annoy cyclists – but it’s because there’s nowhere else for the trucks to go.’ 

Dr Hopkins began by looking at the impact of automation on trucking. ‘Heavy goods vehicles are the hardest to decarbonise or turn to alternative fuels,’ she says. They are very reliant on diesel, which contributes substantially to air pollution, so efforts to reduce their environmental impact focus on automation. (This ranges from, for example, automatic braking, to fully driverless vehicles.) ‘We have a driver shortage at the moment in the UK and in lots of other countries as well,’ she points out. ‘And so we started by looking at how automation would affect the driving task.’

She found that the job itself is low paid, with wages having remained static for about 20 years. It is also increasingly stressful, because most businesses use automated tracking software that enables them to know exactly where a driver is at any point in their shift. At the same time, older drivers are retiring and not being replaced by younger drivers, which has led to the government encouraging more women to take up the job – something that tends to happen, Dr Hopkins notes, when a profession becomes less well-paid and lower status. 

Female truck drivers – women in a man’s world

Currently very few truck drivers (less than 10%) are women, but she found a widespread belief that women drive differently, looking after their trucks better and using less energy. So as well as talking to male drivers, she began spending time with the female drivers, talking to them as they did their shifts. ‘It’s been really interesting seeing how women in an industry that is traditionally very male experience their jobs and how it connects to their home lives,’ she says. Many have had to find innovative ways to combine home life with their work and, as well as having to confront a prejudice that truck driving isn’t a job for women, they also have to contend with a lack of good facilities, such as decent toilets. 

Later this year Dr Hopkins is hoping to start a project on the ‘urban mobilities of stuff’. There has been much research interest in how people move around cities and the environmental impact of this, but far less, she says on how ‘stuff’ (goods and waste) is transported. Much of what we know about transport in cities is based on a limited number of cities in Europe and North America, so this work, to be carried out in collaboration with academic partners in the relevant countries, will investigate Split in Croatia and Kisumu in Kenya.  

Dr Hopkins’s wide-ranging interests will make her feel at home in a department whose members are united by an intense curiosity about the world and how it works. She also has the gift of being able to see the connections between apparently different spheres of interest – the work on gender and trucking is very much linked to her work on climate change, she says: ‘As soon as we start thinking about environment on its own and we’re not paying attention to things like labour and questions of equity and justice, it falls apart really quickly. I think it’s a really important part of the equation.’


Find more information on our website about Dr Debbie Hopkins and her research. 

Published 11 July 2019