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Context Sensitive Solutions


This section explains and defines context sensitive solutions (CSS), provides a brief history of events, explains why CSS is important to transportation agencies, discusses efforts to institutionalize CSS, and describes how CSS applies to all areas of transportation program delivery. This section also provides links to resources and examples that reflect the state of the practice of CSS.  The other sections of this website topic provide information related to recent developmentsresearch, documents, and reportscase studies; and links to organizations and training resources that support CSS.

The following topics are covered in this Overview:



What is CSS?

Context sensitive solutions is an approach to advancing transportation programs and projects in a collaborative manner and in a way that fits into the community and environment. The approach has evolved since 1998, when the seminal Thinking Beyond the Pavement conference set out the basic concepts for what had been known as context sensitive design (CSD). During the early CSD implementation efforts, transportation agencies quickly realized that decisions made during long range planning affected design choices made during project development.  In addition, the links between design decisions and construction, operations and maintenance activities became critical for ensuring customer service from “cradle to grave.” These early learning experiences revealed the cross-cutting and multi-dimensional aspects of CSD and eventually led to the new term “context sensitive solutions.”  This evolution from CSD to CSS reflects the intent to expand the concepts of CSS well beyond the design process to include all phases of program delivery, including long-range planning, programming, environmental studies, design, right-of-way, construction, operations, and maintenance. 

In recognition of the evolution of CSD to CSS, AASHTO and FHWA have recently worked to refine the 1998 CSD definition, principles, qualities, and characteristics. This refinement is continuing as part of an on-going effort. Most recently, FHWA and AASHTO have collaboratively defined 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.

Further definition of what CSS is for transportation processes, outcomes, and decision making is provided by the following core principles, qualities, and outcomes.  These core CSS principles, qualities, and outcomes apply differently depending on the circumstances, scale, and type of project.  The statements below can also be used as a basis for assessing whether an activity meets CSS goals.

Core CSS Principles

  • Strive towards a shared stakeholder vision to provide a basis for decisions.
  • Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of contexts.
  • Foster continuing communication and collaboration to achieve consensus.
  • Exercise flexibility and creativity to shape effective transportation solutions, while preserving and enhancing community and natural environments.

CSS Qualities

Context sensitive solutions is guided by a process which:

  • Establishes an interdisciplinary team early, including a full range of stakeholders, with skills based on the needs of the transportation activity.
  • Seeks to understand the landscape, the community, valued resources, and the role of all appropriate modes of transportation in each unique context before developing engineering solutions.
  • Communicates early and continuously with all stakeholders in an open, honest, and respectful manner, and tailors public involvement to the context and phase.
  • Utilizes a clearly defined decision-making process.
  • Tracks and honors commitments through the life cycle of projects.
  • Involves a full range of stakeholders (including transportation officials) in all phases of a transportation program.
  • Clearly defines the purpose and seeks consensus on the shared stakeholder vision and scope of projects and activities, while incorporating transportation, community, and environmental elements.
  • Secures commitments to the process from local leaders.
  • Tailors the transportation development process to the circumstances and uses a process that examines multiple alternatives, including all appropriate modes of transportation, and results in consensus.
  • Encourages agency and stakeholder participants to jointly monitor how well the agreed-upon process is working, to improve it as needed, and when completed, to identify any lessons learned.
  • Encourages mutually supportive and coordinated multimodal transportation and land-use decisions.
  • Draws upon a full range of communication and visualization tools to better inform stakeholders, encourage dialogue, and increase credibility of the process.

CSS Outcomes

Context sensitive solutions leads to outcomes that:

  • Are in harmony with the community and preserve the environmental, scenic, aesthetic, historic, and natural resource values of the area.
  • Are safe for all users.
  • Solve problems that are agreed upon by a full range of stakeholders
  • Meet or exceed the expectations of both designers and stakeholders, thereby adding lasting value to the community, the environment, and the transportation system.
  • Demonstrate effective and efficient use of resources (people, time, budget,) among all parties.

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Where Did CSS Come From?

Context sensitive solutions is not an entirely new concept for most transportation professionals; in fact, many legislative actions, regulations, policies, and guidance developed and passed during interstate era and beyond (1950s through 1990s) are reflective of the CSS philosophy.  

Although some argue that CSS began well before the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), this piece of legislation provides evidence of the concepts of CSS. The idea that people can live in harmony with their natural and built environments and therefore should make decisions that consider how to best accomplish this outcome is the foundation of NEPA.  It was over two decades later that the term context sensitive design surfaced to reflect similar intentions.  By the mid 1990’s, communities around the country began to voice concerns about how transportation projects affected their sense of place, cultural identity, and overall quality of life.  Tom Warne, former Executive Director of Utah Department of Transportation best captured the early intentions of CSD at the 1998 Thinking Beyond the Pavement Workshop by this statement:

“In the beginning of the Interstate era, we built the greatest freeway system in the world; but aesthetics and preserving the environment weren’t part of that mission.  Now we need another transformation. We’re here to define a new vision, to change how we do business.”

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Chronology of Events

The following provides a brief chronology of events related to the advancement of CSS within the transportation industry:


Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA)  was enacted in 1991. ISTEA  created the Transportation Enhancement Activities, National Scenic Byways Program, the original National Recreational Trails Funding Program, the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, and provided broad eligibility for pedestrian and bicycle facilities for nearly all Federal-aid highway program funds.  ISTEA expanded the Federal transportation focus from constructing roads to providing diverse surface transportation options with consideration of environmental enhancements and focus on community issues and livability initiatives.


National Highway System Designation Act was enacted in November 1995 (Section 109a of Title 23, United States Code). The relevant portion of the law states the following:

Rehabilitation of highway on the National Highway System (other than a highway also on the Interstate System) may take into account [in addition to safety, durability and economy of maintenance and to conform to the particular needs of each locality]... the constructed and natural environment of the area; the environmental, scenic, aesthetic, historic, community, and preservation impacts of the activity; and access for other modes of transportation.

FHWA's Office of Program Administration and Office of Environment and Planning published Flexibility in Highway Design


The Maryland Department of Transportation, State Highway Administration, AASHTO, and FHWA conducted the conference, Thinking Beyond the Pavement: National Workshop on Integrating Highway Development with Communities and the Environment While Maintaining Safety and Performance in May 1998. This workshop was co-sponsored by AASHTO and FHWA with the advice and support of the National Workshop Advisory Committee.

Following the national workshop in Maryland, five pilot states were selected: Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, and Utah. The pilot states agreed to implement the CSD approach, based on the qualities and characteristics that were developed at the Maryland workshop, and to share their experiences with the states within their region.  FHWA Federal Lands Highway joined the five pilot states.


The American Society of Civil Engineers held a CSD conference in June 1999. Over 140 practicing civil engineers gathered in Reston, Va., to participate. The workshop, sponsored by the Highway Division's Environmental Quality Committee, offered civil engineers in the community the opportunity to hear from the nation's leaders on context sensitive design and to participate in active and informative small group discussions.


AASHTO CSS Task Force was created.


FHWA named "Environmental Stewardship and Streamlining" as one of three "Vital Few" priorities in its Fiscal Year 2003 Performance Plan. Within this priority, the FHWA aimed to have the practice of Context Sensitive Solutions in place in all 50 states by 2007.


FHWA and partners launched, an Internet-based national resource center.

A Guide to Best Practices for Achieving Context Sensitive Solutions (NCHRP Report 480) was published. This guide demonstrates how transportation agencies can incorporate context sensitivity into their transportation project development.

AASHTO’s Guide for Achieving Flexibility in Highway Design was published.  The AASHTO Guide shows highway designers how to think flexibly, how to recognize the many choices and options they have, and how to arrive at the best solution for the particular situation or context. It also strives to emphasize that flexible design does not necessarily entail a fundamentally new design process, but that it can be integrated into the existing transportation culture.


The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) was enacted in August 2005. Section 6002 of the law calls for “more efficient and effective Federal surface transportation programs by focusing on transportation issues of national significance, while giving State and local transportation decision makers more flexibility for solving transportation problems in their communities.” Section 6008 of the law authorizes the Department of Transportation to consider the characteristics and qualities of CSS in establishing standards to be used on the National Highway System.

State DOT Context Sensitive Solutions Survey was conducted by AASHTO.  The survey findings were presented in a report to the members of the AASHTO Task Force on Context Sensitive Solutions, in April 2005.

AASHTO’s Center for Environmental Excellence held the 2005 Best Practices in Context Sensitive Solutions Competition.


National CSS Peer Exchange was held.  The Peer Exchange, held in Baltimore, Md., on Sept 6-8, 2006, was sponsored by the AASHTO Center for Environmental Excellence in conjunction with the AASHTO CSS Task Force and the Federal Highway Administration. Over 260 participants from 46 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Nova Scotia participated in peer exchanges, discussing the issues and challenges to implementation. During concurrent breakout sessions sixteen projects were presented to highlight the success of CSS. Participants had the opportunities to meet with other state representatives to initiate state action plans to further implement CSS within their state and agency. 

American Society of Civil Engineers Conference was held. Held in November 2006, this conference, Context Sensitive Solutions in Practice: What You Need to Know, was designed to train the transportation practitioner in the latest principles, tools and techniques of Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS).  Lessons learned from projects that reflect CSD applications were presented in eight concurrent breakout sessions. Cutting-edge tools and techniques for engaging the community, communication, selecting alternatives and setting design parameters were presented. 

The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) published Context Sensitive Solutions in Designing Major Urban Thoroughfares for Walkable Communities.  This book advances the successful use of CSS in the planning and design of major urban thoroughfares for walkable communities. It provides guidance and demonstrates for practitioners how CSS concepts and principles may be applied in roadway improvement projects that are consistent with their physical settings.

AASHTO’s Center for Environmental Excellence held the 2006 Best Practices in Context Sensitive Solutions Competition


AASHTO and FHWA report on the Context Sensitive Solutions Strategic Planning Process. A report was issued to summarize the collaborative strategic planning work of AASHTO and FHWA.  Four strategic goals for mainstreaming CSS were identified as part of this efforts as well as a refinement of the 1998 CSS qualities and characteristics.

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Why is CSS Important to Transportation Agencies?

CSS is important to transportation agencies because it can lead to better relations with their stakeholders and it can result in expedited program delivery, which can save time and money. CSS is a business approach that responds to the growing interest of the public to be meaningfully engaged throughout the transportation decision-making process. Simultaneous with this demand for more involvement from communities and other stakeholders, most transportation agencies are being asked to do more with less; therefore, it is more critical than ever that decision-making result in timely and cost effective solutions that work for the transportation agency and their stakeholders (doing the right thing the first time).  Another goal of CSS is to develop partnerships with stakeholder groups such as local governments, non-profits, and other state and federal agencies which result not only in shared decision-making but shared financial responsibility. 

Other benefits of CSS include:

  • CSS solves the right problem by broadening the definition of "the problem" that a project should solve and by reaching consensus with all stakeholders before the design process begins.
  • CSS conserves environmental and community resources. CSS facilitates and streamlines the process of NEPA compliance.
  • CSS saves time. It shortens the project development process by gaining consensus early, and thereby minimizing litigation and redesign, and expediting permit approvals.
  • CSS saves money. By shortening the project development process and eliminating obstacles, money as well as time is saved.
  • CSS builds support from the public and from the regulators. By partnering and planning a project with the transportation agency, these parties bring full cooperation and often additional resources as well.
  • CSS helps prioritize and allocate scarce transportation funds in a cost-effective way, at a time when needs far exceed resources.
  • Group decisions are generally better than individual decisions. Research supports the conclusion that decisions are more accepted and mutually satisfactory when made by all who must live with them.
  • CSS is the right thing to do. It serves the public interest, helps build communities and leaves a better place behind.


See also, CSS: A Proven Way of Doing Business that Helps Agencies Perform Better and More Efficiently 

Additional Benefits of CSS

A range of additional benefits may be gained from implementation of CSS. For example, CSS is a great risk management strategy because the process requires early identification of issues through efforts to define the context.  The CSS approach can be used to ensure compliance with federal, state and local statutes, regulations and policies. (Click here for FHWA’s summary of laws affecting transportation).

(Click here for more information on risk management strategies and CSS from

CSS approach will help meet the requirements of SAFETEA-LU, which called for “more efficient and effective Federal surface transportation programs by focusing on transportation issues of national significance, while giving State and local transportation decision makers more flexibility for solving transportation problems in their communities.”

CSS is forthcoming from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program through NCHRP Project 15-32, Quantification of CSS Benefits. This research will quantify the benefits of strategic and appropriate application of the principles of context sensitive solutions in transportation planning, programming, project development, and operations. This research is scheduled for completion in 2008.

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What Steps Can Help Institutionalize and Integrate CSS?

Integrating CSS into day-to-day work activities requires that transportation agencies understand and manage agency-wide organizational change and implement specific changes that impact policies, processes, functional areas, and relationships.  Aligning organizational and procedural goals with CSS principles and concepts is critical to optimum success.  FHWA has many program activities that are supporting CSS integration, including the CSS Integration Guide and Self Assessment Tool.  This guide is currently under development and suggests the following nine focus areas that are critical to address as part of a state DOT’s CSS integration efforts:

  • case for change;
  • vision;
  • implementation strategy and action planning;
  • accountability;
  • communication;
  • training;
  • resources;
  • modeling and mentoring; and
  • partnership.

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Examples of Efforts to Institutionalize CSS

The following list provides examples of approaches utilized by transportation agencies to institutionalize CSS:

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Key Topics for CSS Process and Project Integration

To fully institutionalize CSS, it is critical for current processes to align with CSS principles and concepts.  The key topics for CSS integration for projects are listed below:

  • Effective and efficient decisionmaking: Understanding how the pieces of decisionmaking from purpose and need to implementation fit together seamlessly is a key success factor for CSS.  NCHRP Report 480: A Guide to Best Practices for Achieving Context Sensitive Solutions provides a good explanation of effective decision-making (see chapter 3).The presentation on CSS and Project Delivery at the national Peer Exchange in 2006 provides a high level process chart for integration at the project level.
  • Comprehensive understanding of context: Understanding quality of life considerations early in the process – including links to land use and multi-modal options – is critical for efficient and effective decision-making. Properly defining the context is a major consideration in developing a problem definition that is owned by stakeholders.  One example of a state DOT that has developed a context screening tool is Pennsylvania DOT.  The tool is called a Community Context Audit and it is intended to be a guide to identify various community characteristics that make each transportation project location unique to its residents, its businesses and the public in general. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) created a Placemaking Audit for New Hampshire DOT as part of their CSS training program.  This tool helps transportation practitioners work along side with the public to define the  problem using context information.  Another resource for defining context is titled, Community Culture and the Environment: a Guide to Understanding a Sense of Place This is an EPA resource that offers a process and set of tools for defining and understanding social and cultural aspects of a community, especially as related to environmental issues.
  • Flexibility in Design:  Understanding the design choices available to transportation professionals is key to developing solutions that fit the context.  AASHTO’s publication, A Guide to Achieving Flexibility in Highway Design, provides useful information about the flexibility inherent with AASHTO’s Geometric Design Guide (a.k.a., The Green Book). Two examples of state DOTs with flexibility design guidelines include Pennsylvania DOT’s The Transportation Project Development Process: Cultural Resources Handbook, and Washington State DOT’s Understanding Flexibility in Transportation Design.
  • Stakeholder involvement:  Engaging stakeholders in the decisionmaking process is fundamental to CSS.  CSS is marked by a collaborative process that brings together individuals representing the project’s context in order to develop a solution. Several state DOTs have impressive public involvement manuals.  Examples include
  • Interdisciplinary teams:  Bringing multiple disciplines together to utilize their knowledge and skills is the cornerstone of developing solutions that reflect the context.  NCHRP 25-05 Synthesis Project 37-01, Multi-Disciplinary Teams in Context Sensitive Solutions, is currently being finalized by TRB and will be available soon. Tennessee DOT shared its experience with an interdisciplinary team in a report titled, The Resource Team in a Context Sensitive Solutions Process.  
  • Lessons Learned:  Continuing to share lessons learned among state DOTs is critical to advancing CSS.  See the section of this website entitled Case Studies for more information.

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Performance Measurement

Some transportation agencies are in the process of developing CSS related performance measures but little guidance or resources are available.  The most noteworthy reference for CSS performance measures is NCHRP Document 69: Performance Measurement for CSS:  A Guide for state DOTs ( ). This document stresses that performance measures should reflect process, outcome, organizational and project goals.  The guide clarifies that no one size will fit all transportation agencies.  Furthermore the guide, states that measures for CSS should be consistent with any strategic planning efforts within an agency. The following is an excerpt from the guide:

Developing performance measure requires strong leadership and day-to-day management to place a program on the right footing. Allocation of the proper resources and commitment is critical for making sure that performance measures get put into practice.  Equally important, measurement programs need a day-to-day champion capable of orchestrating and managing daily activities, both during the program establishment phase and during program implementation. In the measure development phase, a working group should be created to develop measures and an implementation framework. The working group will likely include both internal participants and external stakeholders. Who to involve will depend on agency-specific political and operating environments.”

A few transportation agencies have developed performance measures that relate to CSS principles and concepts. Below are some examples:

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AASHTO-FHWA Strategic Planning Effort

As a follow up to the Peer Exchange held in September 2006, key staff from FHWA and members of the AASHTO CSS Task Force met in Portland, Oregon, to develop strategic goals for mainstreaming CSS into all transportation agencies over the next five years. Four strategic goals along with 14 accomplishments were identified by this working group Link to file:

Below is a list of the four strategic goals:

  • Making the case for CSS:  The intent of AASHTO/FHWA is to improve the understanding of CSS, including its benefits, and to correct widely held misperceptions.
  • Building CSS knowledge and skills:  The intent of AASHTO/FHWA is to help support CSS education through research, training, and the sharing of best practices.
  • Promote flexibility in standards application to facilitate CSS through revision of standards and/or better understanding and utilization of inherent flexibility: The intent of AASHTO/FHWA is to encourage the integration of CSS principles in all phases of project development, especially in the design of transportation projects.
  • Support leadership and coalition building:  The intent of AASHTO/FHWA is to leverage the financial, technological, and organizational resources necessary to help CSS champions and the stakeholder community to implement CSS and to evaluate measures of success.

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Summary of FHWA's CSS Related Activities

Many efforts underway through FHWA’s CSS program are listed by the agency in a Current Activities Report. This summary includes the CSS related activities being sponsored or championed by the FHWA Offices of Federal Lands Highway; Infrastructure; Planning, Environment and Realty; Resource Center; and Safety. For additional information about these or other activities, contact the points of contact identified for each activity. Additional information is available on the FHWA CSS program website.

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Where Does CSS Apply In Program and Project Delivery?

CSS is a business philosophy that spans across all functional areas of program and project delivery from long range planning through to maintenance and operations. 

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CSS in Planning

Long range planning, if done in a way that is responsive to CSS principles and concepts, can streamline project development by establishing a strong basis for purpose and need of a project. FHWA provides a good resource for explaining how CSS and transportation planning can work together in their Q and A’s document.  In January 2007, FHWA's Office of Planning released Integration of Context Sensitive Solutions in the Transportation Planning Process, which documents efforts to integrate context sensitive solutions into the transportation planning process. The report includes a literature review, an assessment of how CSS is being used in planning and related principles, development of a tool kit for the public and planners, and findings and recommendations.  Other good resources for CSS in planning can be found in FHWA materials related to linking NEPA and planning activities.

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CSS in Project Development

Project development is where most of the emphasis on CSS originally began with environmental planning and design taking center stage in most discussions on CSS.  As the original term context sensitive design implies, there was an early focus on location decisions that rely on environmental and design controls.  Fortunately, NEPA provides an excellent framework for decision making that is highly reflective of CSS principles and concepts.  However, many projects are funded without federal funds and most states do not have state-NEPA type laws. CSS bridges this gap by focusing on all projects developed regardless of funding sources.  Most of the collected resources related to CSS have fallen under project development activities. For example, the AASHTO CSS award winners provide excellent examples of small/large and urban/rural projects.  FHWA awards program, Excellence in Highway Design provides examples that focus on CSS applications. Other examples of CSS in project development can be found within state DOTs that have developed design manuals reflective of CSS principles and concepts.  For example, Massachusetts Highway Department developed their award winning Project Development and Design Guide.  The California Department of Transportation provides guidance that aligns their eight-step CSS process with their current project development procedures. Washington State DOT’s report titled, Building Projects that Build Communities, is another great resource for understanding how CSS concepts and principles can be used for project development.

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CSS in Construction, Operations, and Maintenance

Transportation professionals working within construction, operations and maintenance can reflect daily on activities that represent CSS principles and concepts.  The very nature of the work demands constant interaction with stakeholders, particularly the general public. Construction, operations, and maintenance staffs work daily in the communities they serve and they often have the best insight in how to meet the needs of these communities. CSS is expanding into construction, operations, and maintenance activities, illustrating that CSS is critical to all transportation activities.  NCHRP Project 25-25 (04), Environmental Stewardship Practices, Procedures, and Policies for Highway Construction and Maintenance, is an excellent resource for transportation agencies looking for strategies for incorporating CSS related concepts into construction and maintenance activities.

Partners for the Road Ahead that focuses on helping businesses thrive during construction.  Based on construction survey research, interviews with local government and economic development staff, and meetings with business leaders in affected communities, UDOT has pooled a wealth of knowledge and resources to provide business owners with a concise, reader-friendly guide to help them prepare for transportation construction projects.

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Links to CSS-related Laws, Policies, and Guidance

Federal Laws, Policies, and Guidance

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State DOT Laws, Policies, and Guidance

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