a playful illustration depicting four diverse women in a spotlight beam, with stars and q&a speech bubbles scattered around

Cambridge Systematics (CS) has benefited from a long history of women transportation professionals leading, innovating, and advancing our mission to improve transportation for the next generation. The Women’s History Month Leadership Spotlight Series showcases CSers who are helping to chart our course. In the third installment of the series, we’re sitting down with Dalia Leven, our Transit & Shared Mobility Service Planning Practice Lead, as we discuss her experience leading a team, what she expects for the future of transit, and how we move forward. Dalia has 18 years of experience in transit planning and analysis and travel demand forecasting. She has led multiple large-scale regional bus system redesigns, corridor studies, and long-range plans across the country. 

“Dalia has been able to combine her deep technical expertise and passion for transit equity to make a real difference,” says Brad Wright, President and CEO of Cambridge Systematics. “The future of transit and shared mobility is bright with Dalia at the helm. She brings a tireless devotion to her client work, to her colleagues, and to our mission to improve transportation for future generations.”

Can you talk about any woman or women who have had a significant influence on your life or career?

Dalia Leven's headshot

I have to mention my mother. I was 19 before I realized other people thought there were things girls should and shouldn’t do because my mother never once implanted that notion. That has made a lot of difference along the way for me.

Over the course of my career, I’ve met a lot of people who’ve made me think, This is who I want to be when I grow up. Some are people I’ve worked with, some I’ve met in real life. But these are awesome, wonderful people who are very open and who treat other people well.

When you think about the trajectory of your career, is there a moment you're particularly proud of?

Dalia Leven's headshot

I think the moments I am proud of fall into two categories. One is really great project work that I'm proud of – and there’s a lot of that. The other is the risks I've taken over the course of my career. I'm not naturally a risk-taker. And so, when I have done these things, I'm proud of myself for having done them, and I'm usually pleased with how they've turned out. In 2016–2017, for example, I applied for and was given a fellowship for which I had to move to Berlin, learn to speak German, get a job at a German company, and basically leave everything I knew behind and live out of two suitcases for a year. I’m really proud of the fact that I did that, despite the fact that it was really hard in every way.

What about a challenge you overcame?

Dalia Leven's headshot

Generally, the most challenging thing for me over the last 18 years has been those moments when you have to find common ground with people who have very different views from you. But through all of that, I think that with everyone we meet, we learn something from them. Even if that something is, "I don't want to be like that." You learn from those experiences and incorporate them into how you go about your daily life at work. One of my most challenging experiences gave birth to my main project management philosophy, which is, "No one dies for this." People matter, and we can work together to find ways to keep us all thriving while successfully completing our work.

What advice do you have for a younger professional woman starting out in this field?

Dalia Leven's headshot

Take some of those risks that I talked about, even if you're not a risk-taker. Have some of those adventures. And do not be afraid to be yourself at work. I think when I started, I didn't feel like I could be my whole self in the office and with my coworkers. As soon as I let that go a little bit, I was so much more comfortable. Work was less exhausting, and I was also much more successful. It could be that I was going to be successful anyway, but I'd like to imagine it has something to do with the fact that authenticity builds connections, and connections are the key to success in this business.

CS talks a lot about the importance of teamwork. Can you talk about your experience leading a team and how it’s impacted your perspective on the work?

Dalia Leven's headshot

There are so many different ways we work together at CS. From leading the practice area to leading project teams.

On the leading of project teams—again, nobody dies for this. Making sure we’re treating every person on the team as if they were a human and not just a cog in a machine is really important. One of the ways I try to do that is to really acknowledge everyone on the team—in particular when we have big interdisciplinary projects or huge projects where we’ve got a big team outside of CS.

What I’m dealing with now in leading the practice area is building out my own understanding of where we’re going. When we're working on a project, it's the client's vision that we're trying to bring to life. That's never easy, but it is relatively straightforward. When we're leading a practice area, there are so many different things we're trying to achieve. We're trying to achieve growth for the company. We're trying to achieve professional development and growth for all of the people within the practice area. We're trying to do various things that could take you in different directions.

Balancing those is a challenge, but it's also about recognizing that without a client to tell us what to do, it's about what we think is the right direction and what is going to help our people. Listening and making space for all of those voices and coming up with plans and strategic priorities that speak to the range of interests and experience on the team is something that has been a learning experience for me. How do we go about making sure that there's joy in the work for everyone who's part of the team?

When you think about the future of the practice, what are some issues you expect to dominate? Is there anything that might surprise others who are not close to the work?

Dalia Leven's headshot

There are so many things. I'm not going to talk about all of them, and I'm going to miss some really important ones. But I'll start with equity and thinking about what building equity really means. There's been a push to consider equity in transportation planning generally, but transit planning in particular—building equity through changes to transit service and processes.

Because transit operates in an environment with fixed resources, building equity and improving things for the folks who need it the most does mean difficult tradeoffs. Helping agencies figure out how to make those hard choices and how to support them is something we’re really good at, whether it's through data that says these are the folks who need this and these are the benefits they will see—or whether it's through improved public engagement.

So we're really trying to focus that engagement and that outreach on the folks who aren't typically involved in a public engagement process. We've done a lot of that as part of the bus network redesign I'm leading for WMATA. The sheer scale of the engagement effort to reach those communities has been phenomenal although it does come at a cost. Figuring out how agencies can keep up that level of engagement in the long term—because they should—is going to be a big challenge.

And the definition of equity and what transit agencies are asked to do with it are expanding. They're looking at their policies; they're looking at service design; but they're also being asked to deal with things like the unhoused population who are using transit as a refuge. Crime is on the rise across the country, particularly in big cities, and some of that happens on transit. Thinking about how you deal with crime in a way that isn't targeting low-income and minority populations—these are huge issues.

I'll also call out operating funds as a general issue. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included a huge amount of transportation funding but was primarily focused on building things. It did not provide operating funds to run the trains, run the buses, pay the operators, or pay the electrical bill. Focusing on how we operate that service is going to be a huge issue moving forward.

Also, as folks spend that money to build stuff, we are likely looking at a lot of planning and implementation that will involve coordination with roadway owners and jurisdictions, connections between modes, transit operators, and urban design-related issues. It's going to be a really interesting time. There are no easy answers, but having these conversations is a good starting point.

What do you think is important for your clients to succeed now and in the future? What about the practice area?

Dalia Leven's headshot

From a client perspective, I'll say data because it helps you understand what's happening, how things are working, what the problems are, and what the issues are. That doesn't just mean quantitative data. It can be data from public comments. It can be qualitative. But you need to understand the issues you're trying to address before you can actually address them.

We’re going to need to think of creative solutions to new problems, and with that creativity, I think there’s some risk-taking that needs to happen across the country for agencies to try some new things and see what works. Hopefully, that can be shared across the industry so that one transit agency isn't taking all the risks.

Then there is partnership. Agencies working with their state governments, their local jurisdictions, the legislatures, and the federal policymakers—it's essential to making anything happen in transit and transportation generally.

For our practice area to succeed, I think we need many of those same things. We need creativity, and we need to be able to understand those problems by bringing together different data sets, different perspectives, and different types of expertise. I think that's how we move forward.

Thanks for chatting with us, Dalia!

Continue the Conversation

Dalia Leven headshot

Dalia Leven, AICP

Transit + Shared Mobility National Planning Lead