Bert van Wee never thought that he would win the Best Professor Award. Delta spoke to the Professor of Transport about the impact of corona and the character of generalists.
“I never thought that I would win the Best Professor Award.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Bert van Wee never thought he would win the Best Professor Award. Delta spoke to the Transport policy Professor about the impact of corona and the character of generalists.

Lees in het Nederlands

Professor Bert van Wee has been Professor of Transport Policy at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TPM) since 2003. Outside TU Delft he is sought after by the media for interviews on developments in transport. He explains developments and their contexts in clear sentences and in broad lines. According to the Delft University Fund, that awards the Best Professor Award to an outstanding professor in research and teaching, Van Wee ‘has left an indelible mark on the international, national and Delft transport community.’ The Fund praises his ‘continuous drive to improve education, including his own teaching’ and the ‘dedicated and critical, but always positive way in which he supervises his graduates and PhD candidates’. Van Wee says that he is flabbergasted at being recognised like this for his work.

Two days later, Delta put a few statements and questions to him.

I am flabbergasted about the Best Professor Award because …
“Because I did not expect it all. Our Dean, Prof. Aukje Hassoldt, sent me an app. She wanted to discuss a confidential personnel issue with me, preferably in person and on Monday. I preferred the Wednesday as I was due to go to TU Delft then anyway. But she was so insistent that I assumed that it was about something that involved several people. I never even thought about the Best Professor Award.”

I enjoy commuting.
“No, I don’t. I live in Amersfoort. That’s where my social life is and it’s too important to me to give it up for work. So I have to commute. It’s not that I hate it as I can work in the train, but I would rather that TU Delft was around the corner.”

That was when I decided to specialise in transport and mobility.
“I am a social geographer and I graduated in 1983. The labour market was in recession and I was asked to work for a traffic research and consultancy bureau as a student with a part time job. It was easy work and it was fine to tide me over while I was looking for a job. But after a while I really started to enjoy it. I was offered a contract, took some courses and became a project leader. I just rolled into the transport research world by accident.”

‘Social skills are important’

I have my story ready, should the media call.
“I don’t respond to everything, but probably to more than half the requests. I have my story ready about 90% of the time. But I often have to look up exact numbers. For example if a journalist asks if driving faster is more dangerous, the answer is yes. Every kilometre above the 100 km per hour limit causes three to four percent more deaths. But I have to check if it’s 3.2% or 3.6%. The journalists are usually satisfied with the rough estimate.”

Corona will continue to impact our transport system in the long term.
“Yes, you need to consider two things. One, people’s activity patterns and travel behaviour, and two, the transport system. There are more and more signals that we need to take long-term changes in activity patterns and thus in travel behaviour. People are using trains less and do not fly internationally for activities that can be done differently. I expect that the use of online resources will increase, for example, in our case working remotely instead of coming to the campus. If it transpires that we will continue to avoid rush hour by working at home or travelling at different times, the capacity expansion of the transport system will be less profitable.”

These are the qualities that PhD candidates must have.
“They need to meet all the ethical guidelines such as those on the reproducibility of research. After that, I do the selection according to certain qualities. PhD candidates must be able to anchor their work thoroughly in theory and design good research methods. They need to know what lies at the heart of their research. Preferably they should be able to write reasonably well in English and have social skills. There are cases of loners who lock themselves away for a while and then emerge with wonderful things. But at TPM we do research that affects society so it is important that they can communicate and explain why they want to do particular research and why it is relevant.”

‘Every year there are one or two occasions when a student bursts into tears’

Those were the statements. The term teacher implies intensive contact with graduates and PhD candidates. How has this gone recently?
“Through a lot of emails and online discussion. I have only been at TU Delft a few times.”

Was that enough?
“Yes and no. The exchange of ideas and knowledge can be done from a distance. The personal side is more difficult. Every year there are one or two occasions when a student bursts into tears during a discussion, but this does not happen online. People are more reserved about letting others know if they have a problem or are getting stuck.”

You have more than four years to go before retiring. What do you want to achieve in that time?
“I am supervising 16 PhD candidates at the moment and will continue to do so. I also want to update a 2013 textbook about transport systems. At the time, I edited it with TPM colleague Jan Anne Annema and David Banister of Oxford University. I am a complete generalist, just like Jan Anne Annema. To avoid a gap when we leave, I want to train new generalists.”

How do you turn people into generalists?
“By giving them a glimpse into several areas and teaching them to choose fast, because the volume of work published on everything that flies, sails and drives is incredibly daunting. It is also important to understand how everything is connected. The pieces of the puzzle then fall into place. This is hard work. You need to read the literature, give lectures on different subjects and supervise a lot of graduates on a wide range of subjects.”

‘There are too few generalists in science’

Is this doable for one person?
“When I became a professor, people advised me to concentrate on just one subject if I wanted to be published in international scientific journals. I proved that this need not be the case.”

Do generalists have certain character traits?
“I once did a psychological test. It showed that I am extremely associative. I believe that it helps if you can see links between different areas quickly. You need to be curious and understand the bigger picture. I have great respect for people who go into something in depth and specialise. I can’t do that myself but generalists would not exist without specialists. I definitely do not want to give the impression that I think that generalists are better, but I do think that there are too many specialists in science and too few generalists. I believe that society could use more generalist scientists.”

Are generalists extrovert?
“It’s hard to answer that question as I don’t know if some of the generalists I know are extrovert or not. I don’t think I am in any case. I may chat easily, but I don’t share my feelings with everyone.”

  • Prof. Bert van Wee (1958) studied Social Geography at the University of Utrecht. After graduating in 1983 he worked at AGV, a transport consultancy bureau. In 1990 he started working for the RIVM. Seven years later he earned his PhD in the Faculty of Economics and Econometrics at the University of Amsterdam. Between 1999 and 2003, Van Wee was part-time professor at the University of Utrecht. In 2003 he became Professor of Transport Policy at TU Delft. He has been the Scientific Director of the TRAIL research school since 2013. Van Wee has written more than 170 research articles and has edited six books. In his role as professor he has supervised an estimated 350 graduates and 28 TU Delft PhD candidates. The Best Professor Award consists of the silver Best Professor badge, a cheque worth EUR 15,000 and two business class plane tickets.