Graphics header for Appendix 2 Introduction to Context Sensitive Solutiions (CSS) with images of sidewalks, pedestrians and schematics behind the text

What is CSS?

CSS is a different way to approach the planning and design of transportation projects. It is a process of balancing the competing needs of many stakeholders starting in the earliest stages of project development. It is also flexibility in the application of design controls, guidelines and standards to design a facility that works for all users regardless of the mode of travel they choose.

There are many definitions of CSS (see sidebar for example definitions from state DOTs) but they share a common set of tenets:1

(Note 1: Expanded from a list of Principles from the Minnesota Department of Transportation as published on the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies Web site

CSS as Defined by State Departments of Transportation

"Context sensitive solutions use innovative and inclusive approaches that integrate and balance community, aesthetic, historic and environmental values with transportation safety, maintenance and performance goals. Context sensitive solutions are reached through a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach involving all stakeholders." California Department of Transportation

"Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) is a philosophy wherein safe transportation solutions are designed in harmony with the community. CSS strives to balance environmental, scenic, aesthetic, cultural and natural resources, as well as community and transportation service needs. Context sensitive projects recognize community goals, and are designed, built and maintained to be sustainable while minimizing disruption to the community and environment." New York State Department of Transportation

"The essence of CSS is that a proposed transportation project must be planned not only for its physical aspects as a facility serving specific transportation objectives, but also for its effects on the aesthetic, social, economic and environmental values, needs, constraints and opportunities in a larger community setting. WSDOT endorses the CSS approach for all projects, large and small, from early planning through construction and eventual operation. CSS is a process that places a high value on seeking and, if possible, achieving consensus. WSDOT's belief is that consensus is highly advantageous to all parties and may help avoid delay and other costly obstacles to project implementation." Washington State Department of Transportation

These tenets can be applied to the planning and design of any type of transportation project in any context, the result of which is aptly summarized in the following quote from A Guide to Achieving Flexibility in Highway Design (AASHTO 2004):

"...a highway or transportation project that reflects a community consensus regarding purpose and need, with the features of the project developed to produce an overall solution that balances safety, mobility and preservation of scenic, aesthetic, historic and environmental resources."


Why CSS is Important

CSS principles applied to the planning and design of a transportation project can make the difference between a successful project valued by the community or an embattled project taking years or even decades to complete, if ever. There are numerous examples of transportation projects that have ground to a halt or that have been held up in the courts long before final design is ever reached. Why? One common theme in these unsuccessful projects is not just contention over the project, but a lack of understanding of what the community values and a failure to address stakeholder issues and concerns. Some common issues that affect transportation projects include:

A CSS approach to the planning and design of a transportation project (otherwise referred to as a CSS process) cannot guarantee resolution of issues or even alleviate all contention. It can, however, minimize problems and delays by ensuring stakeholder involvement, identification of issues and community values and evaluation of alternative solutions that meet the needs and purpose of the project and address issues to the extent possible. A successful CSS process builds consensus on the best possible solution and promotes community ownership in the results.

Benefits of CSS

"As an approach to transportation, CSS has spread rapidly since 1998. In large part this is because CSS practitioners and advocates understand and embrace its many important benefits:


Elements of Effective CSS

An effective CSS approach to transportation planning and project development can take many different forms, but should include the following key elements:

Purpose and need: Understanding the purpose and need of the project includes developing an inclusive problem definition/statement that represents a common viewpoint of the problem among the stakeholders. According to the Federal Highway Administration (2005), "the purpose and need is the foundation of the decision-making process, influencing the rest of the project development process, including the range of alternatives studied and, ultimately, the selected alternative." The generally accepted characteristics of an effective purpose and need statement include:

Stakeholder involvement: Stakeholders are agencies, organizations, or individuals who have some level of authority over, an interest in, or may be potentially impacted by a transportation project. An effective CSS approach allows for meaningful stakeholder participation—meaning that stakeholders have an opportunity to participate in decisions or contribute in a way that can influence decisions. The CSS process can range from information dissemination, education and the provision of stakeholder input and comments to proactive hands-on involvement through town meetings, workshops, charrettes and advisory committees.

Multidisciplinary team approach: A multidisci-plinary approach to planning and design incorporates the viewpoints of the various agencies, stakeholders and professionals who have roles or areas of concern in the transportation project. The different viewpoints allow coordination between different activities and resolution of competing interests. A multidisci-plinary team approach can also result in a broader range of potential alternatives that meet multiple objectives. The makeup of planning and design teams can vary significantly depending on the nature of the project and can include anyone or any organization connected with the project, including, but not limited to, the following:

Attention to community values and important qualities: Citizens value specific attributes of their community, whether it is the economic vitality of their downtown, their history, ease of mobility and safe streets, the quality of schools, natural resources, scenic qualities, or their system of parks. These important values can be overlooked in the evaluation process. The CSS approach works with stakeholders and the community to identify their values. It strives to integrate these values into evaluation criteria, and develop alternatives to preserve and enhance community attributes and address concerns.

Objective evaluation of a full range of alternatives:

At a minimum, the development of alternatives must meet the purpose and need of the project. Ideally, alternatives developed in a CSS approach meet the purpose and need, preserve and enhance community values and address stakeholder concerns. They also educate the design professional about factors that are important for project success and acceptance. Objectivity is important and all possibilities should be screened in a process that involves the stakeholders. The development, evaluation and screening of alternatives are opportunities to educate non-technical stakeholders.

For a more detailed discussion of the elements of an effective CSS process refer to NCHRP Report 480: A Guide to Best Practices in Achieving Context Sensitive Solutions (TRB 2002).

Conventional Process Versus CSS

There are fundamental differences in the approaches to design that can result in different outcomes. Conventional thoroughfare design is frequently driven by traffic demand and level of service objectives. The first two design elements of a thoroughfare are typically determined in the transportation planning process—functional classification and number of lanes. The outcome of this vehicle mobility-focused process influences the rest of the design process, from working with stakeholders to the final design. A pre-de-termined outcome can be a source of conflict with stakeholders that delays or even stops projects because the thoroughfare design may not be considered compatible with its surroundings or does not address the critical concerns of the community.

CSS-inspired thoroughfare design also begins the transportation planning process with an emphasis on identifying critical factors and issues before establishing design criteria. Certainly functional classification, travel forecasts and levels of service are factors to consider in CSS, and may be a high priority objective under many circumstances. Through a multidisciplinary approach, including a full range of stakeholders, the process seeks to identify the core issues/problems, develop a spectrum of alternatives and reach consensus on the best solution. The process may determine that level of service needs to be balanced along with environmental, historic preservation, or economic development objectives in the community. This process results in a well thought out and rationalized design tradeoff—the fundamental basis of CSS.

An inclusive process is not a guarantee of success, but it often results in early acceptance and community ownership of transportation projects. The tenets of CSS in thoroughfare design are summarized in the principles described in the next section.

CSS Principles, Processes and Outcomes

The qualities and characteristics of a transportation project were originally developed at a conference in Maryland in 1998 entitled "Thinking Beyond the Pavement." In 2007, at a meeting of the AAS-HTO Standing Committee on Highways, a group of FHWA, state department of transportation and institutional representatives refined the definition and principles of CSS resulting in a list of process characteristics and outcomes. These process characteristics and outcomes have become measures by which successful context sensitive solutions are judged.2

(Note 2: Refer to "Results of Joint AASHTO/FHWA Context Sensitive Solutions Strategic Planning Process, Summary Report, March 2007". Prepared by the Center for Transportation and the Environment at North Carolina State University. The document can be found at

Based on the refined definition, context sensitive solutions is guided by a process which: