Federal Highway Administration Context Sensitive Solutions Primer Banner
Skip Navigation
A Different Approach
The Context Sensitive Way
CSS and Consensus
Characteristics of the CSS
CSS Products or Design
Let's Define Context
Better Value
Tailored Solutions
Customer Satisfaction
On-Time Delivery
  Challenges of Implementing
CSS at the Federal Level
CSS at the State Level
CSS at the Regional Level
CSS at the Local Level
Unique Issues of Urban Arterials


The Benefits of CSS


Better Value

Graphic showing four benefits of CSS

CSS processes deliver better value in the form of reduced costs or more cost effective projects, on–time delivery, or–perhaps most importantly–improved community relationships. Direct cost savings relate to right sizing of facilities, avoidance actions (reducing the environmental clearance from an EIS to an EA/FONSI), and avoidance of opposition which can lead to costly litigation and delays. Finally, CSS processes provide opportunities to leverage a wider range of funding options, including non–traditional funding sources or cost–sharing approaches.

Many senior executives of state departments of transportation (DOTs) recognize that applying CSS principles to their project delivery systems will save time and resources and better ensure delivery of projects as planned. For example, under David Ekern's leadership, the Virginia DOT's business plan calls for implementing a CSS program as part of its Number 1 objective: improve project development and delivery. Mr. Ekern has asserted “We will do CSS because it saves us time and money.”

The 2007 Joint AASHTO/FHWA Context Sensitive Solutions Strategic Planning Process determined that CSS processes helped project teams meet—or exceed—the expectations of both designers and stakeholders, “thereby adding lasting value to the community, the environment, and the transportation system.”

“We have reached the realization that the highway department does not know what is best for everyone..”

— Charles Adams, Maryland State Highway Administration


Tailored Solutions

An agency´s design manuals, standards, and criteria will generally produce proven solutions to typical problems. The challenge for designers is to recognize when the standard solution may not “fit” or perhaps not work, and a unique approach is required. A CSS mindset can help a designer know when to apply a tailored approach. Being context sensitive means that designers look for solutions that avoid or minimize impacts while operating safely and efficiently. Ultimately, this results in better—even optimal—solutions, which are in alignment with the environment and community.

The process requires flexibility and creativity. To be flexible, designers must first have thorough knowledge of how and why specific design criteria are applied, and keep key issues and values in mind. Designers who are ““context sensitive” understand that the design process is not one of applying mandates by rote, but rather of carefully exercising choices involving these design controls and roadway elements:

  • Design speed
  • Design traffic and level of service
  • Design vehicle
  • Design elements
  • Facility operations

Design choices are influenced by the context: topography, location, functional classification of the facility, adjacent land use, and presence and nature of environmental features, including built elements. Designers exercise judgment about design controls, and look for creative solutions that balance stakeholder needs while preserving operational safety and efficiency. Designers might, for example, suggest asymmetric designs or policy or operational changes that will make possible a solution that performs optimally within the project´s unique context.

Examples of Creative Design Solutions

Divided highway

Cross–median crashes were all too common on the Baltimore–Washington Parkway, owned by the National Park Service. A concrete barrier, the traditional solution for this kind of safety issue, was not acceptable to stakeholders because of aesthetic impacts. The solution shown was a concrete barrier with stone facing that met safety requirements and standards while fitting the highway's historic and aesthetic context.




Two lane highway

The alignment of a road widening in Maryland was set to run straight through an established oak tree. To preserve the tree, the team realigned the roadway with the tree in the median, redesigned the profile to preserve the tree's root system, implemented a special irrigation treatment, and installed a timber-faced guardrail to shield the tree from median encroachments. This saved a tree valued by the community and resulted in a safe, efficient roadway.



“Roads that follow the topography require minimal cut and fill, which reduces the impact on landforms and the cost of hauling out excess material.”

— Scenic Byways: A Design Guide for Roadside Improvements


Customer Satisfaction

Citizens at ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Danville River Bridge

CSS projects are not only acceptable to stakeholders, they can become a community rallying point and source of civic pride. An agency–wide commitment to CSS approaches can increase agency credibility and lead to more productive relationships between the agency and its “customers,” the community.

Many people assume that a context sensitive process will cost more than a traditional project development process. These processes are scalable and do not necessarily require an extensive (expensive) public involvement process. A CSS process does require taking the time to listen to stakeholders early on and develop solutions that reflect stakeholder values; but developing solutions with stakeholders is less expensive than redesigning a project!

“If you are a customer–focused organization, these concepts are logical and inevitable. Context sensitive design is a fancy term for common sense. Context sensitive design is a philosophy.”

— Connecticut DOT staff



Alarm clock

On-Time Delivery

By gaining an understanding of stakeholder issues early, teams who use CSS approaches can shorten the project development process and reduce the likelihood of redesign and litigation later on.

"Good design takes time...Bad design takes longer!"

— Scott Bradley, Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Context Sensitive Design/Solutions: Better Way

Benefits can include:

  • Simpler, Faster Permit Approvals — When the appropriate agencies are involved at each step of the process, there are likely to be fewer questions at the end of the design phase when the agency applies for permits.
  • Reduced Environmental Analysis Requirements — Avoidance actions can reduce the required environmental analysis for the project (e.g. from an environmental impact statement to an environmental assessment/finding of no significant impact).
  • Community Support — Because stakeholders are involved early, issues and barriers are identified and addressed early, resulting in less re-work and a shorter and more reliable timeline for project development.

“Agencies that have institutionalized CSD/CSS confirm that real, measurable benefits accrue to the agency and ultimately the taxpayers and constituents of their states. The benefits can be broadly categorized as reducing agency costs of doing business, as delivering projects on schedule (avoiding delays or project halts that were previously common), and as improving the relationship with their customers.”

— NCHRP Report 480