Federal Highway Administration Context Sensitive Solutions Primer Banner
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A Different Approach
The Context Sensitive Way
arrow WHAT IS CSS?
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


What is CSS?

Project team members capture community comments on flip charts during a public meeting

The CSS process is a collaborative, interdisciplinary, holistic approach to the development of transportation projects. It is both process and product, characterized by a number of attributes. It involves all stakeholders, including community members, elected officials, interest groups, and affected local, state, and federal agencies. It puts project needs and both agency and community values on a level playing field and considers all trade-–offs in decision making.

The process differs from traditional processes in that it considers a range of goals that extends beyond the transportation problem. It includes goals related to community livability and sustainability, and seeks to identify and evaluate diverse objectives earlier in the process and with greater participation by those affected. The result is greater consensus and a streamlined project during later stages of project development and delivery.

While CSS processes are often associated with design, the approach is most effective when used during each step of planning and project development--from long-range transportation plans to individual corridor strategies.


CSS and Consensus

While every project has unique circumstances, all CSS processes should build consensus around these issues before solutions are identified:

  • Project context, including geography and community values
  • Problem to be addressed
  • Implementation plan and decision-making process and roles
  • Vision, goals, and evaluation factors

Once stakeholders agree on these, the team can begin to identify and evaluate alternatives and make decisions. The steps for building agreement are flexible and can be adapted to suit individual projects. At the heart of the approach is the methodical integration of diverse values at each step of the process.



CSS definition

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) defines context sensitive solutions (CSS) as: “a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders in providing a transportation facility that fits its setting. It is an approach that leads to preserving and enhancing scenic, aesthetic, historic, community, and environmental resources, while improving or maintaining safety, mobility, and infrastructure conditions.”

Context is a broad description of a project's physical, economic, and social setting. The context may include the community, ecological, aesthetic, and transportation conditions as well as the political and policy environment.

Interdisciplinary teams are groups involving people with different backgrounds who work collaboratively to solve a common problem.

Stakeholders are affected people and organizations, including agency staff and elected officials, organized groups, area residents, and business owners.


Characteristics of the CSS

  • Communication with all stakeholders is open, respectful, honest, early, and continuous and is tailored to the context and phase
  • Establishes an interdisciplinary team early, including a full range of stakeholders, with skills based on the needs of the transportation activity
  • The landscape, community livability, valued resources and ecology, and construction issues are researched and understood before engineering design is started
  • There is a clearly defined decision-making process
  • Project teams track and honor commitments through lifecycle of the project
  • Full range of stakeholders and transportation officials are involved in identifying issues
  • Project purpose is clearly defined consensus is sought on the shared stakeholder vision and scope of projects and activities, while incorporating transportation, community, and environmental elements
  • There is commitment to the process from top agency officials and local leaders
  • Process involves multiple alternatives, resulting in a full examination of a range of possible solutions and agreement on the best path forward
  • Agency and stakeholder participants monitor how well the process is working and improve it as needed
  • Participants encourage mutually supportive transportation and land use decisions and consider the needs of a variety of transportation modes
  • Full range of communication and visualization tools are used to engage stakeholders

As shown by the graphs below, a CSS process becomes less contentious as the design becomes more complex. Public and stakeholder involvement might be a primary activity early in the project, but by the time engineers are producing detailed plans, stakeholders only wish to be kept informed about progress and involved when changes arise. This front-loaded community participation and decision-making process allows stakeholders to influence outcomes by raising issues early when they can still be addressed.

Graphs comparing the traditional and CSS processes


Characteristics of the CSS Products or Design

  • The project is in harmony with the community, and it preserves environmental, scenic, aesthetic, historic, and natural resource values of the area
  • The project is a safe facility for all users and the community
  • The project solves problems and satisfies the purpose and needs identified by a full range of stakeholders
  • The project exceeds the expectations of both designers and stakeholders and is perceived as adding lasting value to the community as a whole
  • The project involves efficient and effective use of resources (time, budget) of all involved parties

“´The community' is anyone who has an interest or stake in a particular place. It is made up of the people who live near a particular place (whether they use it or not), own businesses, or work in the area, or attend institutions such as schools and churches there. It also includes elected officials who represent an area and groups that organize activities there, such as a . . . merchants association.”

— Project for Public Spaces (PPS) from How to Turn a Place Around: A Handbook for Creating Successful Public Spaces — from Getting it Right in the Right of Way: Citizen Participation in Context-Sensitive Highway Design

Left Photo: Before CSS design Right Photo: After CSS design

These before and after photos from the Aurora Avenue Project (Shoreline, Washington) illustrate how successful CSS projects improve safety and mobility for a variety of users. The photo illustrates a new grade-separated pedestrian crossing, improved sidewalks, managed access, enhanced greenscape.


Sustainability and Livable Communities

CSS projects consider new and emerging technologies, funding sources, and public policy issues aimed at addressing major drivers such as energy supply, climate change, and sustainability initiatives.

CSS projects address livability issues such as bicycle and pedestrian facilities, transit, and multimodal connections.

Bridge designed to reflect context of natural area

CSS projects embrace sustainability principles such as stormwater mangement, water quality, and the use of recycled materials throughout their lifecycles.


“To be more responsive to the public, we need to move from
expert-based design to community-based design.“

— American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) — from Getting it Right in the Right of Way: Citizen Participation in the Context-Sensitive Highway Design


Let's Define Context

The first step of the CSS process is to define the context for a project. This is essentially the framework within which this approach will be applied, so it is important to understand what that includes. So what is ““context?”

“Context refers to the natural or built environment created by the land, topography, natural features, buildings and associated features, land use types, and activities on property adjacent to streets and on sidewalks, and a broader area created by the surrounding neighborhood, district, or community. Context also refers to the diversity of users of the environment.”

— Federal Highway Administration

While the context for every project will be different, every project has a context.
An inventory of the context may include:

  • The area’s natural environment. Does the project area include a major natural feature such as a river, open space, or view to a mountain?
  • The area's social environment. How do stakeholders perceive the community and its strengths and weaknesses? Are there major gathering places in the project area? What are the area's demographics? Are there elderly, low-income, or minority communities in the area?
  • The function and design of the transportation facility. What types of users and trips does the facility need to accommodate?
  • The transportation behavior in the area. Who is traveling in the area? What modes are they using?
  • The area’s economic environment. What are the land uses in the area? How does the transportation facility affect businesses and residents?
  • The area's cultural characteristics. What aspects of the community are important to stakeholders? What significant features define the community?

Some aspects of context might be viewed positively by one stakeholder group and negatively by another. For example, substantial regional traffic might be a positive for the owner of an auto-oriented business and a negative for the area's residents. Descriptions of the context should use objective, value-–neutral language to reflect the perspectives of all stakeholders without judging which aspects are good or bad.

Creating an inventory or profile of community resources and attributes has long been a part of the “Community Impact Assessment (CIA) process. For more information on this methodology, see the Community Impact Assessment (CIA) Web site.

Example of Urban Context

Example of Rural Context

Beyond function and design of a transportation facility, context includes built and natural environmental as well as social, cultural, and economic aspects