This past Thursday at Wayne State University, Transportation for Michigan and Freshwater Transit hosted a public debate on Michigan transportation policy between students from Detroit Community High School and University Preparatory High School. After the final rebuttal was presented, it was clear that each side had not only proven a strong case for their argument, but also the need for students like them to come to the tables of state, regional, and local policy discussions.
In the debate, the students were tasked with proving whether the state of Michigan should or should not increase investments in public and non-motorized transportation. Deon Davidson and Regina Sturgis of Detroit Community argued the affirmative side (that investment be increased). Rayvon Dean and Brooke Kimbrough of University Preparatory argued the negative.
Regina opened up the debate presenting evidence of Michigan’s youth brain drain, where many young college graduates are leaving the state for other opportunities and communities elsewhere. Many of those places have strong public transportation systems that allow young people the freedom to not own a vehicle, along with the attendant expenses. Deon would later back her up with evidence of transit sustainability and accessibility, the barriers that auto-centered transportation system present to communities and environmental and public health considerations like greenhouse gas emissions. Rayvon countered that the brain drain was due to a lack of jobs in Michigan, rather than a lack of transit. He argued that Michigan already struggles to fund the current transportation system – without the burden of shifting more money to transit. Brooke continued, presenting proof that using cars supports job growth in the auto industry, and that Michigan’s brain drain could also be blamed on cold Michigan winters.
The students, all juniors in high school, sourced their evidence from state law, bills being worked on by our state legislature, and news reports.
In the end, the judges ruled 2-1 in favor of the negative side, however the audience clearly favored the affirmative. Neil Greenberg, transit development specialist for Freshwater Transit, brought out the most important takeaway from the event, explaining in his closing remarks how much he has to learn from students like Regina, Deon, Brooke, and Rayvon. Greenberg told the students that he was impressed by their ability to actually listen to each other, and then respond constructively. He added that many transportation activists, himself included, often are great at talking but not as good at listening.
The youth voice is often underrepresented in matters of policy. When it comes to transportation however, young and old alike are affected daily and directly by their local infrastructure. It doesn’t matter how old you are – we all have places to go, things to do, and things to produce and consume that require a suitable transportation system to move each part where it is going.
These four students from Detroit proved that their firsthand experience with transportation and their time debating it over the past school year make them superbly qualified to be participating in the real world debate happening in southeast Michigan and Lansing right now.
By: Dan Sommerville, Policy Associate, Michigan Environmental Council (Trans4M Core Member)