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Context Sensitive Solutions in the Transportation Planning Process

Q1. What is "context sensitive solutions" (CSS) and how is this different from "context sensitive design" (CSD)?

A. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) defines CSS as a collaborative, interdisciplinary, approach that involves all stakeholders in developing a transportation facility that complements its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, and historic and environmental resources while maintaining safety and mobility. CSD, on the other hand, applies to a transportation project's engineering design features, and may include features that help the project fit harmoniously into the community (e.g., form liners for bridge piers, colored crosswalks, or curbing detail).

Q2. What is meant by considering CSS in the transportation planning process?

A. The application of CSS principles within the transportation planning process assists regions and communities reach their transportation goals by encouraging the consideration of land-use, transportation, and infrastructure needs in an integrated manner. When transportation planning reflects community input and takes into consideration the impacts on both natural and human environments, it also promotes partnerships that lead to "balanced" decisionmaking. This is a core principle of CSS.

Typically, transportation planning includes specific goals and objectives for the region, sub-region, and/or major corridors. Among the examples of such goals and objectives include safety for the traveling public; accommodation of bicycles and pedestrians; enhancement of economic development; preservation of the historic character of certain streets or districts; accessibility to transit; minimization of the environmental impacts of roads; and accessibility to jobs and recreation. Through the consideration of CSS principles, these planning-level goals and objectives can be reflected in the initial or early development of individual projects and may convey information for use in defining purpose and need. In addition, CSS considerations in transportation planning can identify issues or decisions facing the region, allowing for consensus and a shared understanding of the major sources of change that impact the future.

Early application of CSS principles in the transportation planning process may save money and reduce project delays, resulting in significant benefits to transportation agencies. Beyond its value as a public-involvement strategy to foster improved community participation, CSS considerations in transportation planning can help identify community needs and potential problems (and solutions) ahead of the project-development/National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) stage. In February 2005, FHWA and FTA issued program guidance entitled Linking the Transportation Planning and NEPA Processes.

Q3. How can CSS be reflected in a long-range transportation plan?

A. Effectively reflecting CSS principles in long-range transportation plans necessitates partnerships to produce a community's consensus on future transportation improvements that is integrated with the community's vision, goals, and objectives. Traditionally, public-involvement meetings during the transportation planning process have included representatives from State DOTs, public transportation operators, special interest groups, and local transportation planning partners. To better reflect CSS principles, these meetings (at a minimum) may include local land-use partners; Federal, State, local, and tribal environmental, regulatory, and resource agencies; community representatives; and modal transportation providers. For example, establishing a multi-disciplinary scoping team to identify a broad range of issues to "screen" potential projects during the transportation planning process is a viable approach.

Additionally, SAFETEA-LU includes provisions that now require consultation with State, local, and Tribal agencies responsible for land-use management, natural resources, environmental protection, conservation, and historic preservation in the development of statewide and metropolitan long-range transportation plans.

By applying CSS principles in transportation planning, needs may be stated in terms of a balanced context of economic, or other community aspects, as well as mobility and safety needs. In addition, an MPO's participation plan should identify required stakeholder involvement as well as next steps for additional involvement needed to support the transportation planning process.

Q4. What are some techniques for applying CSS principles in transportation planning?

A. The following five examples illustrate, but do not exclusively define, the range of possible approaches that support CSS considerations in transportation planning.

  • Community Context Audit:
    • The Pennsylvania DOT's (PennDOT's) process is a technique used to identify CSS in transportation planning as part of the overall Community Impact Assessment.
    • The Community Context Audit is performed early in the transportation planning process as part of project identification in order to provide necessary documentation for supporting development of a project's purpose and funding allocation.
    • PennDOT uses this technique to incorporate the views of various stakeholders as part of a multi-disciplinary approach.
    • This approach is intended as a guide for identifying various community characteristics that make each transportation project location unique to its residents, businesses, and the general public by considering the community's history or heritage, present conditions, and anticipated future conditions.
    • This approach is used to define the purpose and need of the proposed transportation improvements based on community goals and objectives and local plans for development.
    • For more information go to PennDOT's Community Context Audit.
  • Scenario Planning:
    • Scenario planning is an analytical tool that provides transportation professionals with a framework for developing a shared future vision by analyzing various forces that affect growth (e.g., health, transportation, economic, environmental, and land-use).
    • Scenario planning may be conducted at the Statewide or metropolitan levels to test various future alternatives that meet State and/or community needs.
    • A defining characteristic of successful scenario planning is that it actively involves the public, business community, and elected officials on a broad scale, educating them about growth trends and trade-offs, and incorporating their values and feedback into future plans.
  • Placemaking:
    • The philosophy of "placemaking" centers on the belief that a public-participation process defining and responding to community conditions and needs from the outset is one of the most critical factors in achieving transportation design that is truly sensitive to its context.
    • Placemaking begins with a thorough understanding of the dynamics, desires, and conditions within a community.
    • Photographs can be utilized to make a systematic quantitative assessment of a community's visual quality through a visual preference survey. Other tools and techniques to assist with gaining a better understanding of a place include: mapping special places as an exercise with the community; creating a photographic inventory of important scenic resources, landscape features and community characteristics; comparing photographs of locations within the community over time to understand physical development; assessing change in the community; comparing development patterns; and visualizing a change that may impact community valued resources.
    • Resources include current and historic photographs and aerial photographs, maps, photographic samples of public space in the community, and visual preference surveys.
    • Also included is imagining the future through the use of visualization techniques (e.g., photo enhancements, artist renderings, three-dimensional animation, videos, and scaled models).
  • Efficient Transportation Decisionmaking Processes (ETDM): The Florida DOT's (FDOT's) EDTM process links land-use, transportation, and environmental resource planning, and facilitates early and interactive involvement to produce better environmental outcomes.
    • As a result, FDOT is improving context sensitivity and the quality of decisions and environmental investments.
    • For more information, go to ETDM.
  • Geographic Information System (GIS) Applications:
    • GIS-based Environmental Information Management and Decision Support Systems (EIM&DDS) in planning can facilitate analysis and support decisionmaking for:
      1. project screening;
      2. analyzing progress toward environmental goals and objectives;
      3. comparing transportation plan alternatives and impacts; and
      4. considering avoidance of sensitive resources such as archaeological sites, wetlands, and protected habitat areas.

Incorporating CSS considerations within transportation planning, as described above, achieves the primary objective of producing better environmental results by advancing the ability to identify sensitive environmental resources while facilitating cooperative interagency relationships.

Q5. What are the challenges of incorporating CSS in transportation planning?

A. There are several challenges when applying CSS in transportation planning that include, but are not limited to:

  • Determining the level of public-involvement, how and when to seek input so that it will be meaningful to the process, and how the input received will be considered within the process.
  • Providing an objective and balanced assessment of impacts, trade-offs, and benefits for each alternative. This assessment approach requires careful selection of, and stakeholder agreement on, evaluation criteria. The criteria should reflect community and environmental objectives, as well as transportation objectives.
  • Identifying specific impacts at the planning stage that can be used to translate concepts into physical design configurations for the evaluation of alternatives (e.g., calculation of impacts based on conceptual information).
  • Ensuring adequate documentation, so that the CSS principles can be carried over to design and implementation.
  • Translating stakeholder visions for the future development of an area or region into transportation solutions that are balanced with reasonably available revenue sources
  • Developing decisions and information during the transportation planning process that does not influence the project-development/NEPA process.
  • Perceiving or the reality, that such an approach is a change (i.e., a "cultural shift") in the way State DOTs and MPOs conduct business, possibly meaning that progress or results may not be immediate.
  • Stimulating citizen interest and trust today for an implementable 20-year transportation plan.

Q6. What are the benefits of incorporating CSS in the long-range transportation plan?

A. While there are challenges, reflecting CSS in transportation planning can set the stage for linking long-range transportation planning and project-development/NEPA in a way that creates more seamless decisionmaking and assists in delivering transportation projects with better environmental quality. While the concept of CSS may not be the primary driver for linking the transportation planning and project-development/NEPA process, such an approach can play a key role in advancing environmental stewardship initiatives. Among the benefits of reflecting CSS principles in the transportation planning process include (but are not limited to):

  • Solving the right problem by broadening the definition of the problem and reaching consensus with stakeholders before the project-development/NEPA process begins.
  • Saving time by shortening the project-development process and gaining early consensus; thereby, minimizing litigation and redesign, and potentially expediting permit approvals.
  • Saving money by shortening the project-development/NEPA process and eliminating potential obstacles.
  • Building early support from Federal, State, local, and Tribal governments; and environmental, regulatory, and resource agencies as well as the public through partnering.

More Information


Michael Culp
Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)
E-mail Michael

Updated: 11/16/2009

United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration