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 recent developments; key resources; and case studies.
The following topics are covered in this Overview:
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 term “context sensitive solutions.” This evolution from CSD to CSS reflected 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 refined the 1998 CSD definition, principles, qualities, and characteristics. This refinement is continuing as part of an ongoing effort. 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
Context sensitive solutions is guided by a process which:
Context sensitive solutions leads to outcomes that:
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:
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 www.contextsensitivesolutions.org.) Methods to quantify the benefits of CSS are outlined in the National Cooperative Highway Research Program NCHRP Project 15-32, Quantification of CSS Benefits.
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. Many resources on integrating CSS into transportation practice are available on the ContextSensitiveSolutions.org website.
The following list provides examples of approaches utilized by transportation agencies to institutionalize CSS:
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:
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.”
As a follow up to the Peer Exchange held in September 2006, key staff from FHWA and members of the AASHTO CSS Task Force developed strategic goals for mainstreaming CSS into all transportation agencies. Four strategic goals along with 14 accomplishments were identified by this working group.
Below is a list of the four strategic goals:
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.
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 its Q and A’s document. In 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.
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.
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.
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