Context Sensitive Solutions

What is Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS)?

CSS is a defined as a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders to develop a transportation facility that fits its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic and environmental resources, while maintaining safety and mobility.

CSS involves everyone with a significant stake in the project, such as the residents, businesses, community organizations, civic and neighborhood associations, schools, chambers of commerce, state and federal environmental and economic development agencies, municipal officials, transportation organizations, and advocacy and environmental groups.

Rather than approaching stakeholders at the tail end of the design process in an attempt to gain approval, CSS emphasizes the need to incorporate their early, continuous and meaningful involvement from the very outset of the planning and design development processes. This involvement also continues during all subsequent stages of construction, operations and maintenance.

When CSS principles are applied to transportation projects, the process involves a much broader range of disciplines than traditional transportation design methods, which rely exclusively on the judgment of engineers.

CSS principles have been recognized nationwide since about 1998. The Federal Highway Administration is committed to CSS . Since 2001, the Director’s policy of the California’s Department of Transportation (CalTrans) is to use CSS principles when dealing with road projects.

CARRD believes that CSS guiding principles should be used for the High Speed Rail project. California is a large, diverse state and each community is unique. Stakeholder participation is vital in helping citizens be part of building their communities for a sustainable and a more livable future.

Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) is one of the engineering firms hired to work on the High Speed Rail project. PB, among others, authored a detailed report explaining how State DOTs can use CSS principles to ensure success with road projects. CARRD believes that these same principles can be applied to the High Speed Rail Project to ensure full support from all stakeholders.  The report can be found here.

UPDATE: Since March 2009, CARRD and the Peninsula Cities Consortium (PCC) had been advocating for CSS to be used on the project. In September 2009, the Peninsula Rail Program agreed to use CSS on the SF-SJ portion of the HSR Project.  We encourage other cities concerned about the project to advocate to have CSS used on their segment of the project.

Qualities of a CSS project

The following list of qualities (developed at a 1998 conference for transportation planners called Thinking Beyond the Pavement ) describe the core goals of the CSS process.

The CSS Product: Qualities of Excellence in Transportation Design

The “Qualities that Characterize Excellence in Transportation Design” – that is, of the physical end product of the CSS process – are:

  • 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.
  • The project is a safe facility for both the user and the community.
  • 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.
  • The project exceeds the expectations of both designers and stakeholders and achieves a level of excellence in people’s minds.
  • The project involves efficient and effective use of the resources (time, budget, community) of all involved parties.
  • The project is designed and built with minimal disruption to the community.
  • The project is seen as having added lasting value to the community.

– As agreed upon by participants of the Thinking Beyond the Pavement Conference, 1998

The CSS process:

This outline of the core steps in the CSS process was also developed at the “Thinking Beyond the Pavement” conference.

The CSS Process: Characteristics of the Process That Yield Excellence

“The Characteristics of the Process that will Yield Excellence in Transportation Design” are:

  • Communication with all stakeholders is open, honest, early, and continuous.
  • A multidisciplinary team is established early, with disciplines based on the needs of the specific project, and with the inclusion of the public.
  • A full range of stakeholders is involved with transportation officials in the scoping phase (the period before design is begun when the scope of the project is agreed upon). The purposes of the project are clearly defined, and consensus on the scope is forged before proceeding.
  • 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.
  • A commitment to the process from top agency officials and local leaders is secured.
  • The public involvement process, which includes informal meetings, is tailored to the project.
  • The landscape, the community, and valued resources are understood before engineering design is started. A full range of tools for communication about project alternatives is used (e.g., visualization).

– As agreed upon by participants of the Thinking Beyond the Pavement Conference, 1998

For more information regarding Context Sensitive Solutions, visit the website:

For a list of Frequently Asked Questions regarding Context Sensitive Solutions, please click here.

Here is a CSS Factsheet published by the Peninsula Rail Program.

Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD)