Obama admin transportation secretary talks mobility at Poverty Solutions symposium

Thursday, March 15, 2018 - 5:24pm

Though both reference the concept of “mobility,” transportation isn’t usually associated with climbing the economic ladder. However, a 2015 study of social mobility at Harvard University found commuting time is the single most important factor in escaping poverty; the longer the commute, the less likely a low-income person is able to increase their economic status.

University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions –– a multidisciplinary initiative dedicated to reducing poverty –– hosted a symposium on the relationship between transportation and economic mobility Thursday afternoon, expanding on the findings from the Harvard University study and more.

Julia Weinert, assistant director of Poverty Solutions, described the symposium as an opportunity for professionals in the field to get together and discuss ways to approach difficult problems from a variety of perspectives.

“We really want to partner with communities and policymakers to see change happen,” Weinert said. “Transportation is such an important challenge and addressing it was really a priority for us –– to bring decision makers, leaders, advocates, students, faculty together to talk about these challenges and identify solutions.”

The symposium took an interdisciplinary approach to discussing major barriers to accessing transportation, focusing on various levels of government and rural, suburban and urban challenges. The event featured Anthony Foxx, former Secretary of Transportation during the Obama administration, as the keynote speaker.

Transportation in the United States, Foxx argued, is an overarching system that can expand or limit the opportunities people are afforded. Foxx emphasized ways the future of transportation could adapt to technological advancements, with a focus on equitable transportation systems. He spoke about how these systems are reflective of society and people’s views, and creating transportation systems that unify people is essential in the future.

“We have to understand that when we build transportation facilities, we are actually building communities,” Foxx said. “If we are going to turn a corner on poverty, we have to turn the corner on transportation.”

Following the speech, participants attended one of five different breakout sessions focusing on the various aspects of transportation and social mobility. These sessions covered legal barriers to mobility, barriers to meeting basic mobility needs, engineering systems to enhance equity, transportation security and accessibility across county lines.

Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, an organization advocating legal reform and increased support for those experiencing poverty, spoke during the breakout sessions about legal structures and mobility, highlighting the negative impacts of financial discrimination in courts. Small unpaid fees, Telfeyan noted, can quickly escalate to driver’s license suspension.

“If instead of a $200 court fine we used corporal punishment, and had offenders run ten laps, the punishment wouldn’t hold up because certain people are physically unable to run these laps,” Telfeyan said. “Wealth based discrimination isn't as visible in our society, and leads to low-income drivers being disproportionately punished.”

The symposium ended with an “advocacy panel,” with panelists ranging from graduate students to policy directors highlighting key issues and strategies addressed in groups, offering suggestions on further engagement.

Rackham student Rob Pfaff spoke about the importance of student involvement in the symposium, emphasizing the value of being able to translate research into shareable insights and ideas.

“I think student involvement in the symposium is one of the most essential things,” Pfaff said. “(These events) model the research that faculty and staff are doing to not only capture effects and relate what’s happening in the physical world, but also being able to translate that into our own world, and how we perceive ourselves in this broader academic system. As graduate students obviously we do the research, but it’s not necessarily just producing the research for ourselves, it’s also being able to produce the research, translate it and share it with these other agencies that are interested in taking action.”

Rackham student Alexa Eisenberg agreed with the sentiment, adding important connections and research projects can spring from these events, and link professionals working in different areas of the field.

“These events are pretty critical for forming connections with faculty, and being informed of what else is going on in the school,” Eisenberg said. “At the last Poverty Solutions symposium that we had, a connection was made between the keynote speaker and an organization that I worked with. Us as researchers partnered with them after just a conversation that was had at that symposium, and now we’re doing a three-year research project based off of that. So you never know what can happen by literally just getting these like-minded people into a room.”