Building a community-centered Los Angeles transportation system

Tatiana Overly • February 22, 2023
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KeAndra Cylear Dodds (JD 2012) has spent the last decade working across Los Angeles County organizations and government offices to keep marginalized community voices at the center of policy decisions. Now, as executive officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s first Office of Equity and Race, she’s using her experience and skills developed at the USC Gould School of Law to build “equity fluency” within the agency to ensure that transportation access equitably meets the needs of all community members.
“We’re training folks in the agency on how to better support communities that rely on our system, which includes recognizing the value of their experience and knowledge,” Cylear Dodds explains. “They are the best people to tell you what they need and want.”

Elevating Community Through Law and Policy

Growing up in St. Louis, Mo., Cylear Dodds became fascinated by all aspects of how cities are designed and built, questioning why populations were clustered in certain areas based on race or income level. These big questions led her to pursue an undergraduate degree in urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I started exploring other cities and began to understand the history of land use and planning — decisions that impacted where people of color could live and why some communities have sidewalks and other basic amenities and others don’t,” she says.
She learned how to effect change through law and advocacy during an internship at the ACLU during the summers before her junior and senior undergrad years, which led her to pursue a law degree. She chose USC Gould because of its strong focus on public interest law — and the great weather didn’t hurt.
While at Gould, Cylear Dodds was involved in any public interest activity she could fit into her schedule. She joined the Barbara F. Bice Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF), participated in the Mediation Clinic as a volunteer mediator for the Los Angeles Superior Court, served as president of OUTLaw and executive secretary of the Black Law Student Association (BLSA), and was the executive senior editor of the Southern California Review of Law & Social Justice.
“I did gravitate toward many of the hands-on and advocacy-type activities,” she says.
She fondly recalls a USC Gould real estate course with Professor George Lefcoe that included field trips to sites all over Los Angeles, exposing students to the realities of developing and managing real estate properties — from affordable housing to commercial developments. That’s where Cylear Dodds became interested in the politics and nuances of land use and real estate law, from making the deal to the permitting process to construction — an interest that helped shape her career path.
Another influence was Cylear Dodds’ first job after law school, a PILF fellowship at Western Center on Law and Poverty, where she saw first-hand how litigation and advocacy work together to effect change. “What I appreciate about my legal training was how it prepared me to craft policy intentionally, with a focus on enforceability and impact,” says Cylear Dodds.

KeAndra Cylear Dodds, JD 2012

Her work at Western Center on Law and Poverty prepared her for her next role: Housing and Transportation Deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, whose office represents over two million Los Angeles County residents. There, she found opportunities to solve problems in collaboration with citizens and government agencies, including a conflict with street vendors near MacArthur Park, threatened with arrest for blocking a subway entrance. Cylear Dodds worked with LA Metro, the Los Angeles City Council District 1 office, the UCLA Labor Center and the street vendors to reach a compromise that included designating vending areas with specific operating hours, allowing vendors to conduct their business while ensuring LA Metro could operate its transportation services.
Cylear Dodds’ contributions drew upon everything she had learned about advocating for and working with people who have been excluded or discriminated against, which required a broad, community-oriented approach.
“An interdisciplinary lens is super important when considering policy and advocacy work. We have to think about the whole person and how they navigate life. It doesn’t only matter where you work or how you make a living; it’s also where you live, where you’re trying to go, and how you get there. And what’s your access to the space around you and the systems you need to thrive in life.” she says.
Her approach to problem-solving got the attention of LA Metro, and in 2019, when establishing its first-ever Office of Equity and Race, Cylear Dodds’ name was the top choice for executive officer.
When establishing the Office of Equity and Race at LA Metro, she asked herself the same questions that have always guided her work; “What is the need? Where are people trying to go? Who are the people we serve? What are their challenges? What are their desires for the community?” At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and subsequent racial justice protests, which happened a few months after her office was established, had a considerable influence on the office’s responsibility to develop tools for LA Metro to strengthen community relationships and ensure principles of equity guide future projects.
“I think the pandemic and the protests led to this unveiling and public discussion about the inequities that have existed for a while,” she says of the protests. “It brought it to light for everyone and elevated the importance of our charge to lead the agency in using transportation to improve access to the things people need to thrive in life, to ensure equitable mobility options.”
That work has resulted in valuable gains for community members and LA Metro. Through paid partnerships with community-based organizations and targeted outreach, Metro has doubled participation in the Low-Income Fare is Easy (LIFE) program, a previously underutilized discount fare program for low-income riders. Metro has also created more inclusive community advisory bodies that tackle issues such as public safety. The new approach has resulted in the creation of programs like the Metro Transit Ambassadors, trained staff that provide a strong visible presence on the Metro system and help customers find their bus or rail line or purchase their fares. The program offers an alternative to Metro’s law-enforcement-based programs, helping riders feel welcomed and safe. The community is more engaged and involved in LA Metro’s affairs, and the agency benefits from higher community buy-in.
Cylear Dodds and her team are involved in many aspects of Metro’s work. Her day-to-day varies greatly but can include strategic advising on current LA Metro initiatives, including community engagement plans, guiding departments through equity assessments, overseeing the development of a new policy, or project managing a capital project. Her team also leads projects and programs such as the recently launched Metro Equity Information Hub, a database for staff and the public that provides links and downloads to Metro’s equity tools, engagement efforts, case studies and industry best practices in one centralized virtual location.
Cylear Dodds is excited about the future of transportation equity in Los Angeles.
“Metro’s equity efforts have the potential to improve mobility and access for all Angelenos, especially those facing the greatest disparities,” she says. “I am delighted to use my legal education and the depth of my professional experiences to build a more equitable Los Angeles.”

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