The page you requested has moved and you've automatically been taken to its new location.

Please update your link or bookmark after closing this notice.

Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration
Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

Integrating Context Sensitive Solutions in Transportation Planning

Task 2.2: Assessment of Context Sensitive Solutions Applied in Transportation Planning

< Prev | Index | Next >



The Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) at North Carolina State University conducted an FHWA-sponsored research project to determine best practices associated integrating context sensitive solutions (CSS) into the transportation planning process. As a part of this study, input was gathered from metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to assist in this effort and to screen potential case studies to be incorporated into the "Integration of Context Sensitive Solutions in the Transportation Planning Toolkit and Report."

This report summarizes the results of the brief survey that was conducted to guide the CTE team in the selection of case studies from MPOs nationwide that best represent the use of CSS and planning.


This survey was designed to focus on MPOs and their practices of applying CSS principles in planning. Email contact information was obtained by the recent Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO) Web site,, and supplemented by contact information obtained from the Web site as well as personal contacts of the team. Not all email addresses were available for each MPO; however, the majority of MPOs were sent the survey. Approximately 350 email surveys were solicited.

The survey format was created using a standard online survey Web application, SurveyMonkey.

The survey was launched on the Web on January 6, 2006. Potential respondents were sent an email containing a link to the survey Web site and brief explanation of the study. Participants were given eight days initially to complete the survey, but a three-day extension was given to allow for later respondents.

The survey questions were designed for quick response and to be used to supplement the literature review, with a goal of quickly assessing whether MPOs were employing CSS principles in the transportation planning processes and practices. In addition, the survey was intended to solicit potential case studies including corridor visioning plans, transportation long-range and/or subarea plans utilizing the principles of CSS. The information gathered from this survey is supplemental to the report and literature review.

Following the goals outlined by the project team and the topic panel, the survey examined the following issues and questions:

The results of the surveys are described in detail in the two following sections of this chapter.


The survey had a response rate of 13 percent. Of the nearly 350 surveys sent out, 45 MPOs responded. The geographic distribution of respondents, by state is shown in figure 3.1. Since contacts were generated using results from an established contact list from AMPO, the validity of contact information and subject relevancy yielded better than average results. Still, it is likely that some states did not respond due to invalid emails/correspondence and/or subject relevancy issues.


Since the vast majority of states responded to the survey, the results are geographically representative (see figure 1).

Geographic Distribution of Survey Respondents

Text Box: Geographic Distribution of Survey Respondents
Survey respondents
represented from
following states

New Hampshire
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
South Carolina

Figure 1. Geographic Distribution of Survey Respondents.

Current CSS Applications and Policies

This survey question was used primarily to assess current CSS applications and policies in MPOs. It was established to evaluate current CSS policies and initiatives on an agency/organizational level. Each MPO was asked what types of CSS policies, directives/initiatives are in place at their agency. Results are shown in table 1 below.

Table 1: Responses to Survey Question: "Which of the following CSS applications or policies does your MPO organization employ? (Check all that apply.)" (N = 45)

Application/Policies Response Percent Response Total
Incorporate CSS into Local Transportation Plans 47.7% 21
Scenario Testing 25% 11
Community Visioning 56.8% 25
Multidisciplinary Team Participation 52.3% 23
Environmental Stewardship Policies 9.1% 4
Adopted CSS Policy 13.6% 6
Adopted Aesthetic Policy 6.8% 3
Innovative Public Involvement Techniques 54.5% 24
Consultation with Environmental Resource Agencies 43.2% 19
Use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to Identify High-Value Community and Environmental Resources 59.1% 26
(Specific responses included: aesthetics review process/committee, collaboration with regional planning commission, corridor management/conservation programs, street classification systems.)
31.8% 14
Top of Page

Principles of Context-Sensitive Solutions for Transportation Planning

In addition to the survey responses, the assessment phase of the project required attention to examining the differences CSS made in the planning process, the impact the use of CSS had on public involvement/outreach, whether CSS improved and/or streamlined the decision-making process, and if CSS led to more integrated planning efforts. Prior to closer investigation of planning efforts, the project team needed to clearly identify the characteristics of a plan or elements of the planning process that would constitute a CSS approach. A candidate list of characteristics was developed, which were tested as a preliminary screening tool on the potential examples identified during the Web-based scan. However, during this exercise the results of the AASHTO CSS survey were released. Forty percent of the respondents to this survey identified lack of clear understanding of CSS as a barrier to CSS implementation. This result seemed remarkable to the project team given the attention and level of effort to implementation of CSS in project planning and design over the last eight years. After considering the AASHTO survey findings, the team felt that the best approach to the CSS in planning criteria would be to adapt established CSS/CSD principles for project development if at all possible. The 1998 principles have broad-based acceptance with transportation agencies and stakeholder groups. They provide a logical foundation from which to build the planning principles. In addition, using these principles as a foundation provides additional visibility and reinforcement of the 1998 principles and will help address the lack of understanding of CSS reported in the AASHTO survey by presenting a unified message.

Thus, beginning with the principles of context sensitive design developed at the 1998 "Thinking Beyond the Pavement" workshop, the team designed a set principles that can guide transportation planning and integrate the ideas of CSS into plans and planning processes. The team reviewed each of the 1998 principles carefully and discussed not only the content, but also the implications of each. For each principle the team then asked how the same intent could be demonstrated during transportation planning. The guiding assumption was that the planning principles should use the same overall structure (product and process principles), concepts, and, wherever possible, the same language agreed to at the 1998 conference. This approach also honors the consensus-based process through which the project development principles were developed. Once each of the principles had been discussed and adapted where possible, the team considered what potential concepts or elements of CSS in planning were missing and included additional principles to address those concepts.

It should be noted that during the fall of 2006, AASHTO and FHWA began a series of meetings and activities to develop a strategic plan for mainstreaming CSS into the work of every State DOT. Part of this effort will include revisiting the 1998 principles with some possible refocusing on core concepts and changes in language. The project team anticipates that the principles for integrating CSS in transportation planning may undergo future revisions to maintain the links with the principles for project development.

The project team began investigating transportation plans and processes for examples where the principles were applied. This investigation began with the MPOs that responded to the survey and was then expanded to consideration of other MPOs. The case studies initially focused on long-range transportation plans (LRTPs), as these are mandated transportation documents and include documentation of the planning process, public comments, and data used. A series of brief fact sheets were developed that highlighted processes and planning products in which CSS approaches were evident. The plans were selected to provide examples of as many of the principles as possible and to represent various regions of the country. The range of plans considered was expanded later to include a somewhat broader range of plan types in order to demonstrate the applicability of the principles to any type of planning effort.

The principles were revised in consultation with FHWA staff and the project committee. In order to collect further comments and input, the revised principles were distributed, along with a brief introduction and a set of brief case studies, to members of the AASHTO Task Force for CSS at the AASHTO/FHWA CSS Peer Exchange, held September 6-8, 2006, in Baltimore, Maryland. Comments on the principles and potential case studies were solicited from this group.

Comments received were generally positive. There was some concern over the principles seeming to indicate that only a maximal effort to apply all aspects of CSS could be considered as having used CSS. Such comments reflected a concern that if CSS indeed becomes the standard practice and official policy for transportation planning in the United States, any situation in which even one principle was not fully applied would be deemed inadequate, thus leaving the door open for formal citizen complaint. This perspective also seeks to strike a balance between the level of effort and expense needed to use CSS and the scope and scale of the planning effort at hand. In short, the desire to use a CSS approach must be balanced with the need to exercise good stewardship of public resources, financial and human. In responding to this concern it should be noted that one of the principles directly promotes the efficient use of resources. Further, the principles are aimed at identifying and promoting excellent, not merely adequate, practices and outcomes. The published materials also note that the level of effort can be scaled as appropriate to the specific planning issue at hand. An additional concern was that the language of the principles seemed to emphasize human factors over the natural environment. It should be noted that for each principle mentioning the human environment, the natural environment is also mentioned. One reviewer commented that only case studies that included a strong public involvement component should be used in the published materials. The long form case studies were carefully screened for this characteristic, although some of the shorter fact sheets were selected primarily for their usefulness in highlighting other CSS characteristics and principles, which should not be taken to indicate poor public participation and outreach efforts. Other reviewers focused on adjustments to wording to broaden the principles, add descriptors to certain elements, or more closely reflect issues faced in their particular state. In consultation with FHWA staff, the project team made an effort to include these ideas in the principles when the changes were in keeping with the general ideas as shaped by the project development principles. In other cases, these ideas were discussed in the descriptive/discussion materials for the toolkit.

The principles are presented in table 2. They are shown alongside the principles for project development to help clarify the linkages between the underlying intent of each principle. In comparing the two sets of principles, the planning principles are in some cases less specific than the project development principles as the latter were designed for application to somewhat more tangible outcomes. There are a few additional principles for planning than for project development, since there are some concepts or elements of CSS in transportation planning that have no counterpart in project development. It is anticipated that these principles may be revised to keep them in step with any changes made to the project development principles.

Table 2: CSS Principles for Transportation Planning

The CSS Product: Qualities of Excellence in a Transportation Plan
Transportation Planning Project Development
  1. Identification of the problem statement during transportation planning is derived from a collaborative process involving stakeholders, documents, and available data.
  1. The project satisfies the purpose and needs as agreed to by a full range of stakeholders. This agreement is forged in the earliest phase of the project and amended as warranted as the project develops.
  1. The problem statement takes into consideration safety for both the user and the community.
  1. The project is a safe facility for both the user and the community.
  1. The transportation plan is in harmony with the regional and communities' visions and is sensitive to the human and natural environment.
  1. The project is in harmony with the community, and it preserves environmental, scenic, aesthetic, historic, and natural resource values of the area, i.e., exhibits context sensitive design.
  1. The diversity of the various communities' visions is integrated into the transportation plan.
  1. The project exceeds the expectations of both designers and stakeholders and achieves a level of excellence in people's minds.
  1. The transportation plan involves an efficient and effective use of resources, and is adopted according to any applicable planning update cycles.
  1. The project involves efficient and effective use of the resources (time, budget, community) of all involved parties.
  1. The transportation plan gives consideration to avoiding and/or minimizing disruption to the community.
  1. The project is designed and built with minimal disruption to the community.
  1. Transportation goals are consistent with the communities' visions and the adopted transportation plan meets or exceeds the transportation goals and objectives.
  1. The project is seen as having added lasting value to the community.
  1. 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 CSS Process: Characteristics of the Planning Process Contributing to Excellence

Transportation Planning Project Development
  1. Communication with all stakeholders is open, honest, early, and continuous.
  1. Communication with all stakeholders is open, honest, early, and continuous.
  1. 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.
  1. A multidisciplinary team is established early, with disciplines based on the needs of the specific project, and with the inclusion of the public.
  1. 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.
  1. A full range of stakeholders is involved with transportation officials in the scoping phase. The purposes of the project are clearly defined, and consensus on the scope is forged before proceeding.
  1. 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.
  1. The highway development process is tailored to meet the circumstances. This process should examine multiple alternatives that will result in a consensus of approach methods.
  1. The adopted transportation plan is based on adopted CSS policy and includes explicit support for CSS.
  1. A commitment to the process from top agency officials and local leaders is secured.
  1. The transportation planning process is based on a comprehensive public-involvement/ participation plan that is based on meaningful opportunities for input.
  1. The public involvement process, which includes informal meetings, is tailored to the project.
  1. The landscape, community, and valued resources are understood before analysis of the transportation system begins or potential transportation solutions are explored.
  1. The landscape, the community, and valued resources are understood before engineering design is started.
  1. A full range of user-friendly tools for communicating transportation plan options are used to effectively present information.
  1. A full range of tools for communication about project alternatives is used (e.g., visualization).
  1. Limitations to the quantity or quality of data and information are recognized, and strategies to manage any gaps are implemented. The final plan and the transportation planning process are thoroughly documented.
  1. 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.

< Prev | Index | Next >

Updated: 10/19/2015
HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000