Institute for Transport Studies (ITS)

The Netherlands

©J. Polder
Bob Peters

Country: The Netherlands

Name: Eric Kroes

Company: Significance BV

Position: Director

ITS course: MSc Transport Planning and Engineering, 1982

Eric Kroes – Dutch realism and British empiricism: how ITS Leeds was instrumental in setting up his international practice. By Hedi Maurer.

My first encounter with Eric Kroes reaches back to 2009. After doing my PhD at ITS in Leeds I decided to come to the Netherlands, where I started working for NEA, a transport consultancy. Through Gerard de Jong, one of my supervisors during my PhD at ITS and also Director of Significance BV, I had been invited to a wine tasting that was organised in May 2009 by Eric at the Significance office in The Hague.

I had innocently expected a social evening with some Italian red wines – but there was more to it. All participants were asked to carefully assess the presented wines by filling in evaluation sheets, assessing elements like colour, smell, taste and finish, together with an overall evaluation and an estimated retail price. I realised that we had been recruited for the typical researcher’s choice experiment. During that particular evening I came to know that Eric’s earlier experience in empirical research went back to a transport data collection practical held in 1980. This had been supervised by Professor Peter Bonsall as an integral part of the Master’s degree course at ITS in Leeds.

Walking into Eric`s office one sees a painting by Joop Polder, an exponent of Dutch Magic Realism. Eric likes Dutch realism. He told me he had graduated in 1977 from the Transport Academy in Tilburg, with a BSc in Transport Planning. He began his first job working for the County Council of the Dutch Province of South Holland. He quickly discovered that “working for a public authority was not his thing”. So he joined NVI (the Netherlands Transport Research Institute, now Panteia/NEA), applying quantitative research methods to transport. A few years later he decided to take one year’s leave without pay, so that he could strengthen his academic profile. He moved to Leeds in the autumn of 1980, and followed a Master’s course in Civil Engineering and Transport Planning at ITS.

How was student life in Leeds in the early 1980s? After his first exposure to English cooking– plates of spaghetti accompanied by French fries at the University refectory - the culture shock was cured by hot custard poured over cake at the Senior Common Room, to which a senior student and friend, Mark Gommers, had provided him access. Student accommodation was an old terraced house on Burley Road. It smelled of burned coal, it needed coins for the television and heating and was burgled every now and again.

While the early years of the Institute were rooted in Traffic Engineering, the leading themes of the 1980s were Transport Planning and Transport Policy, and of course Analytical Methods. These years were marked by the personal influence of the then Director Tony May and Professor of Transport Economics Ken Gwilliam. After Eric’s return to the Netherlands, when he co-founded Hague Consulting Group (HCC) in 1985, Ken Gwilliam became an important external adviser.

In summer 1981 Eric moved back from Leeds to the Netherlands and resumed his work at NVI. He finished his Masters thesis about Attitudes and Mode Choice in October 1981.  Peter Bonsall who supervised Eric’s thesis, influenced his international orientation in two ways: firstly he encouraged Eric to present his thesis at the Summer Annual Meeting (SAM) of PTRC, which later became the European Transport Conference. And secondly, Peter introduced Eric to the international transport modelling programme committee of SAM. A few years later Eric became chairman of this committee. This has been the basis for Eric’s strong international network.

In 1985 Eric quit his job at NVI and founded, together with Hugh Gunn (formerly ITS), Andrew Daly, Moshe Ben-Akiva and Jim Steer, the Hague Consulting Group (HCG). Via this international consultancy with offices in The Hague, Paris and Cambridge, Eric continued his exchange with ITS, particularly through contacts with Peter Bonsall and Dirck Van Vliet. HCG had a strong international reputation in transport modelling with an emphasis on the application of discrete choice models. Its breakthrough came with the development of a large disaggregate transport model system for the Netherlands, the Dutch National Model System. Similar model systems were also developed later, for instance for Norway (national model) and for Stockholm and Paris (regional models).

In 2000 HCG looked for a partner for further expansion, and RAND Europe appeared to be the most suitable candidate. The HCG shares were sold, and Eric became Director Transport for RAND Europe, based in Leiden in the Netherlands. The work continued under the RAND flag until 2006, when the board of RAND US decided to close the Dutch office. At this point Eric Kroes proposed to Gerard de Jong, colleague and ITS Research Professor, to establish a new company, which was then called Significance. They took over the existing contracts and continued business with (part of) the former transport team, with support of the RAND board.

What is significant about Significance? The company has its emblematic name that was chosen after a long search for inspiration and a serious consumption of beer. But in the end it was the strong statistical nature of the work that led to this result. The newly formed company with Eric and Gerard as Directors, and 9 staff members in total, moved to The Hague and all staff members and NEA became shareholders. Under Significance the links with ITS became stronger again. Gerard de Jong divides his time between ITS Leeds and Significance. Andrew Daly, a former HCG colleague who also worked at RAND, is part-time Professor at ITS and is regularly consulted by Significance staff. The same is true for Tom van Vuren, also a former colleague at HCC and an ITS Visiting Professor. Eric works regularly with Mark Wardman, has good contacts with Stephane Hess and Tony Fowkes and also Tony May, still active in the field. And even through Eric’s Dutch academic connection (Eric is Associate Professor at the VU University Amsterdam) there is an active cooperation with ITS Leeds.

So one can safely say that throughout his professional career Eric has maintained close links with ITS, and this has helped him in developing the highly internationally oriented business practice that he has today: he spends his time working for clients in The Netherlands but also in the UK, France, Belgium and Italy. And he maintains close connections with multiple academic institutes in the same countries.