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Integrating Context Sensitive Solutions in Transportation Planning

Task 2.4: Conclusions: Summary of Findings and Recommendations

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Traditional transportation planning has been largely reliant on technical problem solving. This paradigm uses highly rigorous, if somewhat narrow, approaches. The National movement toward taking a context sensitive solutions (CSS) approach to transportation is a marked transformation occurring within the industry. In this approach, many of the larger issues formerly considered outside the domain of the transportation planners/designers are brought to bear on problem definition, identification of solutions, and implementation. Aside from complex physical engineering problems, the interactions between dynamic natural processes, social activity patterns, and more recently even potential effects on levels of physical activity and health of residents are being brought into the decision matrix. Theoretician Donald Schön described this as the movement from rigor to relevance:

When a civil engineer worries over what road to build rather than how to build it, he comes up against the politics of land taking and the organized resistance of neighborhoods. Indeed, he comes up against the whole economic, social, and political life of the region upon which the road may be imposed. And when, having designed a road, he begins to convert his design to reality, he encounters such additional problems as the constraints on city budgets, the reactions of organized labor, and the political machinations of contractors. The engineer may deal with these messy factors by placing them beyond the boundaries of his professional life; he may try to clear a space for narrowly defined professional work, treating the rest of the situation as a necessary evil. Or he may accept the intrusions of the larger situation as a part of his legitimate professional concern, opening himself to complexity, instability, and uncertainty. . . .

It is in the setting of technical problems and in the implementation of their solutions that science-based practitioners meet most directly the dilemma of "rigor or relevance." (p. 187-188). 1

Similarly, a CSS approach requires that transportation planning be opened up to consider the interactions between transportation systems and facilities, and the human and natural environment in order to develop solutions that are acceptable to all parties, relevant to their needs and perspectives. This, in short, is what it means to position transportation needs and solutions within a context.

This is not to dismiss traditional engineering rigor. Transportation planning will continue to require the gathering of travel data, generating projections about population and employment, and then feeding those projections into a transportation system model. The model reveals where in the transportation system unacceptable levels of service will occur. Technical advances in data collection and modeling, such as vehicle-mounted GPS units and activity-based models, will undoubtedly greatly improve the technical accuracy of travel projections and further unravel the complexities of travel behavior. These advances will no doubt continue to improve the technical side of planning and must not be dismissed as trivial in developing and evaluating solutions to critical transportation issues, such as air quality, safety, and congestion. Yet, CSS offers an important complement to these technical advances.

This section of the project report begins with a general summary of the findings of the review of current practice, and some discussion of the broader implications of those findings. The next section describes how integrating CSS in planning is well coordinated with the FHWA Vital Few Goals, and the current transportation legislation, SAFETEA-LU. The closing section makes recommendations for promoting the integration of CSS in transportation planning and identifies some areas that require further research and investigation.

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Summary and Discussion of Findings

Although this project represents an initial foray into drawing connections between CSS and transportation planning, the review of current planning agency practices found that the ideas that lie behind CSS and the attitudes needed for CSS work are not completely foreign to transportation planning. Many agencies are already using one dimension of CSS (or a few). For example, a planning agency may carry out extensive, high-quality public participation/involvement, yet put less energy into coordination with other plans or planning agencies. As a result, the plans may reflect the desires of the community but may falter when recommended projects are moved to implementation phases because of conflicts with other jurisdictions, or important infrastructure or environmental issues. Certainly, at this early point of integration, it is unreasonable to expect to find plans that fully apply every principle to their planning processes and plans. Yet it is very encouraging that many planning agencies are using CSS in their plans and processes. (For a summary table of specific plans' integration of CSS principles see Appendix D.)

Perhaps most encouraging is the finding that across the country transportation planning agencies are making great progress in public involvement/participation. This project identified a number of agencies using innovative techniques and making a tremendous effort to reach out to the public, including segments of the population that have generally not been involved in the past. These agencies are demonstrating that they have integrated the CSS principles related to public involvement. Still, building trust and getting people involved remains a challenge. As with many of the examples of highly successful projects that have used a CSS approach, educating stakeholders on technical and financial issues, and then empowering them to have a genuine say in outcomes are proving successful ways to engage stakeholders in transportation planning. While the uncertainty that stems from including a broad range of stakeholder interests must be acknowledged, it should be recognized as a normal part of cultural and institutional change. The prospect of uncertainty, therefore, does not provide adequate reason to derail the integration of CSS in transportation planning.

One of the potential gains related to taking a CSS approach to public involvement/outreach is that it can build citizens' general capacity for civic engagement. A citizenry that is engaged and educated about transportation issues and processes may be seen as an obstacle to some in the transportation industry, but, in fact, it will prove the opposite in the future. As the legacy fades of past practices that set aside public input, an engaged citizenry will lead to improved planning outcomes that account for the needs of all segments of society, and public buy-in on proposed projects and programs. This higher degree of transparency will encourage trust and understanding of the transportation decision-making process within the public. Ultimately, it may lead to more consistent, long-term political and, therefore, fiscal support for the transportation industry.

An additional positive finding is that many transportation agencies are strengthening the connection between planning and the project development process by using CSS principles in planning as they develop "streamlining" policies. Integrating CSS in planning will play an important role in streamlining by promoting attention to context in an early, "front-loaded" process that will increase the ability to move a project forward quickly in project development. Improving overall efficiency and coordination can also boost job satisfaction levels in the transportation industry workforce, thus improving employee retention and continuity for agencies and for projects and programs.

Increasing attention to planning coordination was yet another noteworthy finding. This is an important component of a CSS approach, where context includes the context of planning, across jurisdictions, scales, and types of planning. Many of the highlighted plans feature close coordination with land-use and growth-management plans, recognizing the interplay between the transportation system and development patterns. Coordinating these two fields holds great potential for promoting more rational and coherent public and private investments, for improving overall environmental quality and quality of life, and for helping communities move closer to their visions for the future.

Along with these encouraging findings, several challenges are identified. One of these is when different goals and visions exist within a single planning jurisdiction. The task in such situations is to develop a plan that is built on multiple visions, which can be in conflict. For example, a region may have one community that highly values open space and traditional, compact neighborhoods, and another community that welcomes low-density growth and the affordable housing and expanding tax base this often provides. A regional transportation plan needs to strike a balance between preserving the first community, perhaps by planning for limited mobility for and through the first community, while at the same time maximizing mobility for and through the second. Many agencies routinely face this issue. Meeting this challenge will require transportation planners who are dedicated to and well trained in developing consensus within diverse groups.

As noted above, some agencies are making considerable progress toward streamlining transportation decision making. Yet the issue of complex jurisdictional and regulatory structures remains a challenge in some respects. For example, it has been reported that some regulatory agencies see early collaboration, in which they may agree to some degree of compromise, may weaken their position later when they are asked to issue project permits.2 This is part of the "stovepipe" mentality that has developed within some regulatory agencies in which they work on specific, narrowly defined points in the project process rather than working iteratively and collaboratively to develop consensus solutions. Changing these attitudes and processes will require time and experience along with internal cultural/institutional change. In order to dismantle these barriers, transportation agencies will need to continue to work to cultivate good interdepartmental and multidisciplinary partnerships, as the political and financial costs of waiting until late in project development can be very high. The current transportation legislation, SAFETEA-LU, requires that environmental mitigation activity be included in long-range planning, thereby, opening up the opportunity to cultivate good working relationships with resource agencies. Integrating CSS at the earliest planning stages can smooth the progress of these important changes.

An additional benefit of integrating CSS into transportation planning is that it can help identify potential indirect and cumulative effects (ICEs), an area of rising concern for the transportation industry.3 Although evidence of this was not found in this project, it seems that a holistic approach and genuine effort to understand the full context of a transportation need may help identify issues that could fuel a challenge based on unacceptable or unmitigated ICEs.

An additional challenge lies in how to meaningfully convey various plan options. Technological advances have provided some exciting tools for visualization, and it is expected that these tools will continue to improve, and be more widely available for use. While some of the plans highlighted in this project are using innovative technical communication tools, more traditional communication and facilitation skills should not be neglected. These skills, although not traditionally part of the transportation planning skill set, are crucial, especially during visioning, priority- and goal-setting, and communicating plan options to the public. Therefore, interpersonal communication and consensus-building skills should not be abandoned in favor of high-tech tools. The collaborative nature of the CSS approach requires a full range of methods and tools in order to build consensus and keep the process moving forward to prevent stakeholder and staff discouragement and fatigue.

Finally, there is a potential challenge related to the small number of agencies that have a formal adopted policy on CSS. This may indicate a lack of buy-in at the highest levels of the agency, uncertainty about what CSS is or how to implement it, or reluctance to commit to a policy that could potentially be used as leverage to alter projects or fuel legal challenges. Continuing to promote and publicize CSS as a way to improve transportation planning, along with documenting successes and problems with using CSS can help allay these concerns. Still, it must be emphasized that a formal CSS policy is not required to integrate CSS into transportation planning, as is well evidenced in some of the plans highlighted in this project.

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Coordination with Existing Policies

FHWA's Vital Few Goals

It has been noted that CSS offers an avenue to move transportation projects and project development processes toward fulfilling the high-priority goals of the FHWA, the Vital Few Goals of safety, congestion management, and environmental stewardship and streamlining.4 Integrating CSS in transportation planning is similarly in harmony with the Vital Few. The CSS principles developed by this project complement the Vital Few, and provide direction for how transportation planning can contribute toward attaining them. Table 3 shows the main objectives related to each of the Vital Few Goals and which CSS principles for transportation planning relate to them. Aside from these specific relationships, CSS principles that emphasize genuine stakeholder involvement and open, honest, and continuous communication will also facilitate progress toward the Vital Few by supporting collaborative work and promoting public awareness and education on transportation issues.

FHWA has also developed a set of measures to be used to assess progress toward meeting each of the Vital Few Goals. Each of these measures requires benchmarking and tracking outcomes and data trends over time. A CSS approach improves the quality and quantity of documentation, which could help facilitate the measurement of progress.

Attaining the Vital Few Goals requires considering transportation facilities in their environmental, operation, and community contexts. Clearly, a context-sensitive approach to all phases of transportation decision making, including long-range planning, will bring more progress toward meeting these nationally important goals.

Table 3: FHWA Vital Few Goals and CSS Transportation Planning Principles

Vital Few Goals and Objectives Related CSS Principles
  • Strategic safety programs integral part of statewide and metropolitan transportation planning
  • Increase seatbelt usage and decrease number of impaired drivers through education and enforcement
  • Decrease fatalities through better engineering design
  • The problem statement takes into consideration safety for both the user and the community.
  • The transportation plan evaluates multimodal, operational, and innovative strategies, and the recommended plan addresses all transportation needs, including, but not limited to, safety, access/mobility, and air-quality issues.
Congestion Management
  • Mitigate overall impacts of congestion through effective local partnerships
  • Reduce work zone delay by aggressively anticipating and mitigating congestion caused by highway work zones
  • Reduce traffic incident delay by aggressively anticipating and mitigating congestion caused by traffic incidents
  • The transportation plan gives consideration to avoiding and/or minimizing disruption to the community.
  • The transportation planning process includes identification and consideration of adopted municipal, State, and Federal agency plans relevant to the transportation planning process, including, but not limited to, those for land use, water and sewer, watershed management, economic development, and mitigation.
Environmental Stewardship and Streamlining
  • Improve the environmental quality of transportation decision making by:
  • Integrated approaches to multimodal planning, the environmental process and project development at a systems level
  • CSS at a project level
  • Improve timeliness of the EIS and EA processes
  • Increase ecosystem and habitat conservation
Source: FHWA,
  • The transportation plan provides planning products that can feed directly into project planning to improve quality or reduce time to complete the project development process, including but not limited to data, stakeholder contacts, hot issues, and agreements.
  • The transportation plan involves an efficient and effective use of resources, and the transportation plan is adopted according to planning update cycles.
  • The multidisciplinary team(s) is (are) fully representative of the human and natural environment as well as the communities' perspectives of a good quality of life and important issues.
  • Identification of the problem statement during long-range transportation planning is derived from a collaborative process involving stakeholders, documents and available data.
  • The transportation plan includes an upfront preplanning process that allows all formal partners, including, but not limited to, environmental agencies and community representatives, to participate in the early identification of issues that should be considered during the transportation planning process.


SAFETEA-LU includes a number of changes for statewide and metropolitan transportation planning.5 An increased level of funding set aside for MPOs is evidence of the recognition of expanded requirements and the importance of planning to the overall transportation decision-making process. SAFETEA-LU established several new provisions and programs that relate to the consideration of CSS principles in transportation planning. The specific requirements for various types of agencies (State DOTs, MPOs, RPCs) vary somewhat, but the basic issues are constant for all transportation planning activities. The CSS principles for transportation planning have a number of parallels with the new SAFETEA-LU provisions and programs and will provide a framework for reaching compliance. Each of the new planning provisions and programs is listed below.6 The CSS principles that are applicable to each are noted in italics. 7

Other CSS principles for transportation planning are also connected with these SAFETEA-LU planning requirements. For example, the quality of the results from addressing the consultation, visualization, and consistency requirements will be greatly enhanced if CSS principles are applied when working with all stakeholders, whether members of the public, resource agencies, DOT staff outside long-range planning departments, or local government or tribal officials. As planning agencies move toward adjusting their processes to meet the legislated changes, using the CSS principles for transportation planning will provide a useful framework for guiding changes in policy and practice. Better still, fully implementing CSS in transportation planning will move agencies well beyond meeting the minimum legal requirements to elevating planning practice to a high level of excellence.

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Recommendations for Implementation

As mentioned previously, many transportation planning agencies are applying some but not all of the principles of CSS. This does not, however, mean that integrating all the principles is unrealistic. Rather, the integration of all the principles will provide a substantial framework for transportation planning that will yield outstanding outcomes - a framework for excellence.

There is one area that may require some caution, however. If CSS becomes a very closely defined process or set of outcomes, or a formal requirement of planning agencies, it could become a stagnant checklist of practices or plan requirements. This is counterproductive to the philosophy underlying CSS and would certainly discourage genuine context sensitive planning. Therefore, it is important that CSS continue to be framed as an approach, a philosophy, a "way of doing business," even if it is a formally adopted policy. For this reason, the principles are somewhat broad in their language to allow for agencies to address the unique planning circumstances they face over time. Further, integrating CSS into transportation planning may help move planning agencies away from solely working through a laundry list of requirements for long-range plans, and improve planning quality so that it truly reflects and responds to the dynamic political, fiscal, demographic, and environmental context.

The review of current practice and exemplary practices identified in this project point to a number of specific ways agencies can move toward fully integrating CSS into transportation planning:

Fully integrating all the principles of CSS into transportation planning will entail considerable effort, and perhaps require some reallocation of agency resources. Some have questioned whether a full application of all principles is necessary for all planning efforts, given the necessity to efficiently manage scarce resources. Certainly, good judgment is needed to discern the degree to which all the various principles of CSS should be pursued in a given planning project. Still, given the high level of public trust placed in them and the power of transportation systems to shape economies, landscapes, and lives, planning agencies should strive toward excellence in planning processes and products. It is, therefore, anticipated that agencies will seek to continually increase the number of principles and the degree to which they are integrated into their planning work.

Related to this is the important early step of improving documentation of both positive and negative experiences with integrating CSS. This will become an important body of knowledge, which agencies, practitioners, partnering agencies and groups, and policymakers can draw from to improve transportation planning processes and outcomes. The FHWA is in a unique position to serve as a clearinghouse for plans and planning practices that use CSS. The FHWA should maintain up-to-date and easily accessible documentation on integrating CSS in transportation planning. This documentation should include not only stand-alone case studies, but also comparative analyses of the efficiency and effectiveness of various planning approaches. This may have important spillover effects by providing much-needed evidence on CSS in project development which can help refine policies and practices across all sectors of the transportation industry.

There also continues to be substantial confusion and lack of knowledge about CSS across the transportation industry. Evidence of this was found in the responses to the AASHTO survey on CSS in which some 40 percent of respondents noted that a lack of clear understanding of the definition of CSS posed a barrier to implementation. This will require that CSS advocates and policymakers continue to develop and disseminate a clear, unified definition of CSS. National entities, including FHWA and AASHTO, should continue to promote National dialogue on CSS through printed and Web-based materials, conferences, workshops, and peer exchanges. It is hoped that this project will have a role in opening the dialogue on what CSS in transportation planning is and how it can be implemented.

In many parts of the country, State agencies have adopted CSS as a policy for project development. In order to implement that policy, agencies are sponsoring CSS training programs for their employees. Employees involved in long-range planning activities in these agencies should be included in these training programs in order to educate them about the general CSS philosophy. Agencies should also consider offering specialized training for transportation planning staff at RPOs, MPOs, and DOTs. Aside from courses specific to CSS, other current workforce training programs should be evaluated and revised to be sure they include CSS principles and approaches. Programs such as the FHWA capacity-building courses for planning, Local Technical Assistance Programs (LTAP), and GIS courses for transportation professionals provide excellent platforms for disseminating the information on CSS and how it can be integrated into transportation planning. Additionally, CSS should become a part of the curriculum of university engineering and planning programs where future transportation planners are being trained. In order to ensure a consistent message about CSS, FHWA should promote coordination across university and workforce courses.

The current transportation legislation, SAFETEA-LU, offers a tremendous opportunity to promote the integration of CSS in transportation planning. As FHWA develops and releases guidance on the various provisions of SAFETEA-LU, it should strive to make the connections with CSS explicit as many SAFETEA-LU requirements can be fulfilled using a CSS approach. National entities, including the FHWA, AASHTO, AMPO, and NARC, should use this opportunity to bring CSS to the attention of agencies through educational and promotional activities as well as outreach to agencies that will increase participation in transportation planning activities under the SAFETEA-LU requirements (e.g., resource agencies and agencies charged with land use, growth, and economic development planning). Outreach to other types of community or public interest groups, such as the Small Town Alliance, the Urban Land Institute, and The National Congress for Community Economic Development, could also help improve the level and quality of stakeholder involvement in transportation planning.

While many of these needs are long term in nature, the case study portion of this project demonstrates that many planning agencies are already using a CSS approach to transportation planning. This indicates that CSS integration into transportation planning can begin immediately. Publicizing the best practices already being in use would be an effective strategy for building awareness of CSS among transportation planners. An educational and promotional strategy should use as many venues as possible, including Web sites, sponsored conference sessions, workshops, and professional publications. This can build awareness and further promote the adoption of CSS in planning in a growing number of planning agencies.

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Recommendations for Future Research

The CSS principles provide a lens for analyzing planning efforts, thus functioning as evaluation criteria that can help identify specific practices that can be used in new contexts. In this way, they have value for policy analysts seeking to identify innovations and improvements to transportation planning practice, and assess their value and transferability to other agencies. Using the principles as evaluation criteria can also help identify "gaps" that could be addressed through Federal agency capacity-building or training programs, or research and evaluation projects. These projects and programs can be more effectively designed and targeted by having a set of principles that serve as a framework for assessing current transportation planning practice. Similarly, researchers and policy analysts will find CSS an appropriate lens through which to assess transportation planning practice, which will also help highlight positive outcomes and identify gaps in practice and policy guidance. Such evaluations should take care to include perspectives of stakeholders and planning partners in order to better assess the degree to which CSS was integrated into the plan and process.

An area that must be explored is whether a CSS approach in long-range planning actually results in efficiency gains during project development. Plans that were developed using CSS principles should be tracked through implementation, into project development and delivery. This would show whether using CSS in planning has payoffs in customer/public satisfaction, streamlining and efficiency, workforce satisfaction, and fostering productive, long-term partnerships. The previously mentioned study, NCHRP 15-32, is anticipated to be an important contribution.

A key to integrating CSS into transportation planning is the close attention to understanding the human and natural environment. To improve this understanding and better integrate different types of environmental factors into planning, new types of data will be needed; and new systems for managing, analyzing, and displaying data will need to be developed. Therefore, research that will improve understanding of the interactions between transportation facilities and communities is needed. Such research can help guide planning agencies in collecting information about the communities they are serving and shape the way planning alternatives are developed and analyzed in light of anticipated outcomes and effects. Researchers can play an important role in testing and demonstrating the usefulness of new measures and data methods for practical application. Support is also needed for the development of databases, such as GIS databases, that include detailed spatial data on the natural and human environment, including social and cultural factors.

Generally, current transportation planning practice does not show evidence of fully integrating the principles of CSS. This is, however, hardly a discouraging finding. Rather, it demonstrates that transportation planning is open to the principles of CSS, a particularly positive situation given the rising support for CSS in project development. Having linkages between best practices in project development and in planning can be a way to strengthen and reinforce those already-adopted practices. Further connections can be made with the FHWA Vital Few Goals and with the current transportation legislation, SAFETEA-LU. Opening up the process, using CSS, will help planning organizations identify and make needed internal, institutional changes that can better cope with complex and dynamic contexts. Fully embracing CSS in transportation planning offers the opportunity to develop a coherent, coordinated approach to addressing our transportation needs, using long-term, big picture thinking and a customer- service focus that reaches across jurisdictions and interests.

1 Schön, Donald A. The Reflective Practitioner. How Professionals Think in Action. Basic Books, 1983.

2 Cambridge Systematics. "SAFETEA_LU Planning Provisions Workshop. Final Report." Prepared for FHWA and AASHTO, May 2006. ( REPORT FR1_SAFETEA-LU Plan Prov Workshop.pdf)

3 Stanley, M. "Indirect and Cumulative Impact Analysis" NCHRP 25-25, Task 11. Prepared for AASHTO's Standing Committee on the Environment. January 2006. (

4 Lane, L, T. Townsend and A. Hartell. "Community Impact Assessment Practice: Where we've been, where we are, where we're going." Paper presented at the 85th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, January 2006, Washington DC. (

5 FHWA. "A Summary of Highway Provisions in SAFETEA-LU." 25 August

6 For additional discussion of each planning factor, see Cambridge Systematics. "SAFETEA-LU Planning Provisions Workshop. Final Report." Prepared for FHWA and AASHTO, May 2006. ( REPORT FR1_SAFETEA-LU Plan Prov Workshop.pdf)

7 This list is somewhat generalized. For specific requirements for each type of agency, see FHWA guidance and SAFETEA-LU legislation.

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Updated: 12/03/2012
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