Context Sensitive Design

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In the past, transportation planners and engineers were often more concerned with the efficiency, capacity, and safety of a roadway for motor vehicles than on the impacts such roads may have on the surrounding environment and communities they serve. This approach often created undesirable conditions, including excessive vehicle travel speeds, unsafe environments for pedestrians, the loss of convenient on-street parking, and adverse affects on local businesses.

Recently, transportation planners and engineers have begun utilizing a new approach to roadway design called Context Sensitive Design (CSD), also referred to as Context Sensitive Solutions. CSD seeks to design new roadways or modify existing ones to suit all users motor vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians, and public transportation passengers. Additionally, CSD seeks to preserve and enhance the character of the surrounding community. Moreover, CSD strives to balance the economic, social, and environmental objectives of the community with the operational needs of the roadway.

What is Context Sensitive Design?

The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) defines Context Sensitive Design as a philosophy wherein safe transportation solutions are designed in harmony with the community. It is not a separate process or set of standards... [but] is a philosophy that guides NYSDOT in all phases of project development. CSD strives to balance environmental, scenic, aesthetic, cultural, and natural resources, as well as community and transportation service needs. Context sensitive transportation projects are designed, built, and maintained to minimize disruption to the community and the environment and to enhance livability. 

In considering ways to address the issue of high volumes of traffic, CSD changes a process that may have previously limited options to widening the road, narrowing or excluding sidewalks, and other remedies that focus only on the safe and efficient passage of increased motor vehicle traffic, possibly at the expense of other roadway users and the community at-large. 

CSD takes the process beyond this to include specific design solutions that address the concerns of local residents, businesses, and/or others.  It also looks at the context in which the roadway is or will be located. Context is everything related to the people and place where the road is located.

Another trademark of CSD is the use of a collaborative planning process involving transportation professionals, local officials, and the public. It stresses the early involvement of key stakeholders to ensure that transportation projects are not only safe and efficient for motor vehicles but that they are also safe and efficient for other roadway users as well as in harmony with the natural, social, economic, and cultural environment. 

CSD requires not only early involvement of stakeholders but also a continuous commitment to public involvement, flexibility in exploring new solutions, and an openness to innovative ideas. Stakeholders play an important role in identifying issues and associated solutions that may better meet and balance the needs of the community. 

Several states including New York, Minnesota, Washington, Utah, Maryland, and Kentucky have adopted CSD principles into their transportation planning processes. The New York State Department of Transportation has two CSD goals:

  • Implement and promote Context Sensitive Solutions in the project development process; and
  • Implement and promote early and continuous public involvement in the project development process.  

The Minnesota State Department of Transportation (MNDOT) views CSD as the art of creating public works projects that meet the needs of the users, the surrounding communities, and the environment. MNDOT integrates projects into the context or setting where they are located through careful planning, consideration of different stakeholder perspectives, and tailoring designs to specific project circumstances.

In the State of Nevada, CSD goals are identified in the States Highway System Master Plan (the link to this document is provided in the Resources section below). Likewise, Governor Kenny Guinn of Nevada stated that:

Our highways give form to our communities and impact us every day of our lives. They connect us to each other and to the place we have chosen to call home. They welcome our guests upon arriving and send them on their way when they leave. Because they affect our ecosystems and the way our neighborhoods and places of business connect to each other, they influence the quality of life of every citizen in the state. (2003)

Benefits of Context Sensitive Design

Several benefits of employing CSD principles in project development and implementation include:

  • Stronger working relationships among public agencies, communities, and citizens
  • Designs that better accommodate community and agency objectives
  • Improved acceptance of final project design
  • Potentially lower project costs
  • Expedited project approvals
  • Good business practice

Special Considerations Regarding Context Sensitive Design

Transportation professionals are typically focused on utilizing accepted design guidance, improving safety, minimizing liability, and maintaining reasonable project costs. 

With respect to accepted design guidance and safety, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) provides nationally accepted highway design guidance in its publication, A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (also known as the Green Book). Notably, the Green Book does include flexibility to accommodate context sensitivity in transportation projects while still meeting accepted design practices, improving safety, and addressing liability concerns. 

In 1998, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published Flexibility in Highway Design that highlighted examples of the flexibility already contained in the Green Book in an effort to support roadway design that is responsive to safety needs and community goals. 

Sometimes, the roadway design that is responsive to community needs and sensitive to the natural and/or built environment is not the one with the lowest cost. However, the benefits of a well-designed roadway to the community may outweigh any increase in project cost that contextually sensitive designs may require. Involving the public in a genuine fashion and incorporating their needs help avoid project delays and promote goodwill with. Quality investments in public space typically yield more interest and private investment in a community.

How a Community Can Get Involved

AASHTO and the Project for Public Spaces, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to placemaking and the protection of public spaces, offer the following eight-point process to communities interested in utilizing CSD in transportation or other community projects:

  • Get out on the street experience it from a pedestrians point of view
  • Seek out partners develop a shared vision for the project
  • Get the word out let the community know something is beginning before any formal discussions
  • Be flexible remember that every environment has its own special conditions
  • Get started many early steps can be low-cost and can help show progress toward the shared vision
  • Evaluate, refine, and phase construction test short-term improvements to see how they are working. Ask users for suggestions about possible improvements or adjustments
  • Keep the big picture in mind use short-term changes as stepping-stones, keeping in mind the broader livability and environmental concerns of the community

Other Context Sensitive Design Resources

Context Sensitive Solutions New York State Department of Transportation - Provides a definition and key points about context sensitive solutions, links to CSD tools and resources, and links to examples from other states and organizations around the country.

FHWA Context Sensitive Design Federal Highway Administration - Outlines the principles of CSD and provides guidance and information about states that are undertaking CSD as part of their transportation planning process. Also includes a useful library of CSD-related publications by FHWA and other sources along with a Whats New section with updated information and recent CSD examples.

Citizens Guide to Transportation Decision Making Federal Highway Administration - Presents information about how decisions are made about transportation projects and how citizens or groups can ensure their opinions are heard and considered by transportation engineers, designers, and planners.

Flexibility in Highway Design Federal Highway Administration - A guide targeted at state and local highway agency officials to help them achieve a balance between safety and efficiency improvements to roadways and the appropriate integration of roadways into natural and human environments. Provides design guidelines, information on the design process, and several case studies.

People and Pavement: Transportation Design that Respects Communities - Michigan Land Use Institute [PDF] - A special report produced by the not-for-profit Michigan Land Use Institute advocating the need for roadway improvements that respect places and people in Michigan.  It calls for flexibility in highway design in order to reduce negative effects on people and other land uses. It highlights the essential elements of CSD and briefly discusses some examples of CSD applications around the country.

Building Projects that Build Communities - Recommended Best Practices- Washington State DOT [PDF] - A framework guide targeted at local agencies, design professionals, and planners. It outlines the typical planning, design, and construction phases of a project, advocating a community partnership approach in each phase to avoid costs (financial, time, and trust) associated with conflicts and delays.

Pattern and Palette of Place: A Landscape and Aesthetics Master Plan for the Nevada State Highway System Nevada Department of Transportation [PDF] - A master plan dedicated to aesthetics in highway construction that provides practical guidance on improving the appearance of Nevadas highways in a bid to promote its tourist-based economy. The planning guidelines and funding sections are particularly useful in seeing the design options available for beautifying the highways and welcoming visitors to Nevada.

Main Street: When a Highway Runs Through It - A Handbook for Oregon Communities - Oregon Department of Transportation [PDF] - A useful resource for local communities whose Main Street is a highway with some of the associated problems, such as high traffic volumes, excessive vehicular speeds, and inadequate and/or unsafe conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists.  It provides an overview of the planning process and gives examples of projects which involved the community. The format for each example clearly lists the problems, the available resources (which are referred to as ingredients), the lessons learned, and the sources of funding for each project.

Context Sensitive Street Design Community Choices Tool Atlanta Regional Commission [PDF] - The Context Sensitive Street Design Community Choices Tool incorporates best practices in CSD at work both locally and nationally. The CSD tool includes a detailed discussion about its practical uses and comes with model ordinances that could be used immediately.