Context Sensitive Design

Roadway Design That Is Responsive To Local Community Values


TDM Encyclopedia

Victoria Transport Policy Institute


Updated 15 April 2015


Context Sensitive Design (CSD, also called Context Sensitive Solutions) refers to roadway standards and development practices that are flexible and sensitive to community values. CSD allows roadway design decisions to better balance economic, social and environmental objectives.


What is Context Sensitive Design? (

By the Minnesota Department of Transportation


Context Sensitive Design (CSD) is the art of creating public works projects that meet the needs of the users, the neighboring communities, and the environment. It integrates projects into the context or setting in a sensitive manner through careful planning, consideration of different perspectives, and tailoring designs to particular project circumstances.


Context Sensitive Design uses a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that includes early involvement of key stakeholders to ensure that transportation projects are not only “moving safely and efficiently,” but are also in harmony with the natural, social, economic, and cultural environment.


CSD requires an early and continuous commitment to public involvement, flexibility in exploring new solutions, and an openness to new ideas. Community members play an important role in identifying local and regional problems and solutions that may better meet and balance the needs of all stakeholders. Early public involvement can help reduce expensive and time-consuming rework later on and thus contributes to more efficient project development.


Context Sensitive Design promotes six key principles:

1. Balance safety, mobility, community, and environmental goals in all projects.

2. Involve the public and affected agencies early and continuously.

3. Use an interdisciplinary team tailored to project needs.

4. Address all modes of travel.

5. Apply flexibility inherent in design standards.

6. Incorporate aesthetics as an integral part of good design.



Conventional roadway design standards define features such as minimum lane width, design speed and minimum parking supply. They often reflect the assumption that bigger-and-faster-is-better, resulting in higher traffic speeds, increased project costs, and roadways that contradict other planning objectives (Kueper 2010. For example, wider and straighter roads tend to increase traffic speeds and disperse destinations, which can reduce Accessibility, Safety and Livability. Efforts to implement TDM strategies are often constrained by these design standards. In particular, Traffic Calming, Streetscape Improvements, New Urbanism, Location Efficient Development, Pedestrian Improvements and Bicycle Improvements may be prohibited or discouraged by current roadway development practices. CSD allows narrower lanes, lower design speeds, sharper turns and special features not included in generic road design guidelines to help create a more balanced and efficient transportation system and meet community Land Use objectives.



How It Is Implemented

Context Sensitive Design is implemented by transportation agencies, based on federal, state, regional and local policy and funding policy.



Travel Impacts

Context Sensitive Design allows many specific changes in roadway design that can support TDM, including Traffic Calming, New Urbanism, Location Efficient Development, and Nonmotorized Transportation. Travel impacts depend on the specific changes that are implemented and how broadly they are applied.


Table 1            Travel Impact Summary




Reduces total traffic.


Supports more diverse transport system.

Reduces peak period traffic.


Shifts peak to off-peak periods.


Shifts automobile travel to alternative modes.


Improves access, reduces the need for travel.


Increased ridesharing.


Increased public transit.


Increased cycling.


Increased walking.


Increased Telework.


Reduced freight traffic.


Rating from 3 (very beneficial) to –3 (very harmful). A 0 indicates no impact or mixed impacts.



Benefits and Costs

Benefits include more cost effective roadway design that better accommodates community objectives, including multi-modal transportation, efficient land use, preservation of cultural and environmental resources, increased safety, and more livable communities.


Costs include increased training for highway designers, and, in some cases, lower roadway speeds.


Table 2            Benefit Summary




Congestion Reduction


Supports more diverse transport system.

Road & Parking Savings


Consumer Savings


Transport Choice


Road Safety


Environmental Protection


Efficient Land Use


Community Livability


Rating from 3 (very beneficial) to –3 (very harmful). A 0 indicates no impact or mixed impacts.



Equity Impacts

Equity impacts depend on specific conditions and perspective. CSD can help create more balanced, less Automobile Dependent transportation systems, and more efficient land use patterns, which benefits people who are transportation disadvantaged.


Table 3            Equity Summary




Treats everybody equally.



Individuals bear the costs they impose.



Progressive with respect to income.


Supports more diverse transport system.

Benefits transportation disadvantaged.


Improves basic mobility.


Rating from 3 (very beneficial) to –3 (very harmful). A 0 indicates no impact or mixed impacts.




Context Sensitive Design can be appropriate in any geographic condition. It is implemented primarily by federal, state/provincial and regional government agencies.


Table 4            Application Summary





Large urban region.


Federal government.


High-density, urban.


State/provincial government.


Medium-density, urban/suburban.


Regional government.




Municipal/local government.


Low-density, rural.


Business Associations/TMA.


Commercial center.


Individual business.


Residential neighborhood.




Resort/recreation area.


Neighborhood association.


College/university communities.




Ratings range from 0 (not appropriate) to 3 (very appropriate).




Improved Transport Choice and Incentive to Reduce Driving



Relationships With Other TDM Strategies

Context Sensitive Design support and is supported by Traffic Calming, Vehicle Restrictions, Smart Growth and New Urbanism. It may involve Road Space Reallocation to increase the portion of rights-of-way devoted to alternative modes and greenspace.




Major stakeholders include policy makers, transportation planners and engineers, transportation professional organizations (e.g., ITE, AASHTO), land use planners, motorists and citizens.



Barriers To Implementation

Barriers include resistance by transportation professionals accustomed to existing practices, and motorists concerned that changes may reduce their travel speeds and safety.



Best Practices

The following Context Sensitive Design planning principles were presented at the 1998 workshop, “Thinking Beyond the Pavement: A National Workshop on Integrating Highway Development With Communities and the Environment.”


Qualities of Excellence in Transportation Design

·         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.


Characteristics of the Process Contributing to Excellence

·         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 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).



Examples and Case Studies


Context-Sensitive Roadway Design Standards (PennDOT & NJDOT 2008)

The Smart Transportation Guidebook provides specific recommended roadway design features (desired operating speeds, travel lanes, lane width, shoulder width, parking lane, bike lane, median, curb design, sidewalk width, and buffer between traffic and pedestrians) for different types of roadways (regional arterial, community arterial, community collector, neighborhood collector and local road) for various land use conditions (Rural, Suburban Neighborhood, Suburban Corridor, Suburban Center, Town/Village Neighborhood, Town/Village Center and Urban Core).



Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach (

The report, Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach 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. It was produced in a cooperative effort by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the Federal Highway Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Congress for the New Urbanism. The following factsheets provide information from this document:



Chocorua, New Hampshire (

Sixty-five years ago, the village of Chocorua – nestled in New Hampshire’s scenic White Mountains – found itself split in two. The main street was widened as part of a new state highway, easing the way for high volumes of traffic to pass through this small town of 900 people. Today, about 11,000 vehicles speed past Chocorua each day, and the village center is being slowly depleted of businesses and tenants.


“We can’t walk around in our village anymore because it's simply not safe,” says Erika Hunter, a Chocorua resident who has lobbied the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) to calm the speeding traffic. Indeed, local citizens aren't about to let their town center disappear. By partnering with NHDOT in a process facilitated by PPS, they are already working to restore a comfortable pedestrian environment and bring businesses back into the fold.


Chocorua’s story is representative of a new approach to transportation planning called “Context Sensitive Solutions,” or CSS, that is gaining currency across the US. The central tenet of CSS is that communities should not be molded to the requirements of motor vehicle traffic alone –transportation should preserve the scenic, historic, and environmental resources of the places it serves.



Michigan State Program Promotes Context Sensitive Design

A new approach to protecting communities that meshes road design, transit systems, and bicycle and pedestrian paths with downtowns, neighborhoods, and the natural environment is quickly gaining acceptance in Michigan and around the nation, according to a special report published this week by the Michigan Land Use Institute.


The new approach, known in technical circles as “context-sensitive design” or “context-sensitive solutions,” replaces the conventional, one-size-fits-all approach to transportation projects with a citizen-led planning process that is much more sensitive to a community's sense of place.


 Last summer, the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council formally recommended that state and local road agencies and communities adopt the new design process. Michigan's Governor Jennifer M. Granholm issued an executive directive greatly increasing Michigan's commitment to context-sensitive solutions.


According to the Institute's new report, “People and Pavement: Transportation Design that Respects Communities,” ( the high-level attention to context-sensitive design reflects both the increasing public resistance to new road construction and growing civic wisdom about the need to reduce costs and improve the conception and quality of new highways and other transportation systems.


 Sometimes roads are like rivers, says the report. Increase the flow too much and they drastically reshape their surroundings. Pump up the traffic on a road through a small town, for example, and all sorts of new gas stations, billboards, and fast food outlets spring up. Soon the road widens and  sprawl, like a mudslide, buries the town's character.


“Context-sensitive design is an approach that places preservation of historic, scenic, natural environment, and other community values on an equal basis with mobility, safety, and economics,” says Mary E. Peters, director of the Federal Highway Administration. “We should seek to institutionalize the principles of CSD with the same commitment that drove the implementation of the Interstate Highway System.”


 A beautifully landscaped boulevard, for instance, can serve as a community's signature gateway. A bustling bus or train stop can spur urban revitalization and generate good business for nearby shops. Sidewalks and bicycle routes can raise property values and promote healthier lifestyles  and more sociable communities.


“Folks, crafting a 21st-century transportation system entails much more than concrete, asphalt, bricks, and mortar,” Gov. Granholm told a statewide transportation summit in December. “It's vastly more complex than building highways and mass transit systems. It's about building and connecting communities. It's about creating livelihoods, economic stability, and reaching out beyond our borders and comfort zones.”



Context Sensitive Design – U.S. Policy Context

Context Sensitive Design (CSD) is 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. CSD is an approach that considers the total context within which a transportation improvement project will exist.


As citizens' expectations for better, safer roads have increased, a growing awareness of communities' needs has also emerged among designers. These two key factors contributed to bringing about this transformation in highway design and construction. Congress, the Federal Highway Administration, governors, State legislatures, and State transportation agencies have all played an integral part in this important evolution of highways. Meanwhile, public interests groups have worked to make developing better methods of highway design a major part of their agendas.


The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) established the National Highway System (NHS) Task Force in December 1988 to look beyond Interstate completion; AASHTO Board of Directors recommended the creation of a National Highway System. AASHTO adopted the National Highway System Design Standards policy on April 11, 1994, Pittsburgh, PA. The relevant portion of that policy is:


BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Member Departments of AASHTO will work through AASHTO's design standards committees with DOT and with interested parties on design criteria and a design process for NHS routes that integrate safety, environmental, scenic, historic, community and preservation concerns, and on standards which also foster access for bicycles and pedestrian traffic along with other transportation modes.


NHS Designation Act was enacted in November 1995: Section 109 of Title 23, United States Code. The relevant portion of that policy is:

A design for new construction, reconstruction, resurfacing...restoration, or 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]...

·         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.



Wit and Humor

A guide in Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-on-Avon was showing a group tourists Shakespeare’s personal effects. In the bedroom he announced, “Here ladies and gentlemen is the bed of Mr. William Shakespeare!” In the parlor he said, “Here ladies and gentlemen is the desk of Mr. William Shakespeare!” And in the kitchen, “This is the pot in which Mr. Shakespeare made his porridge.”

With each artifact the tourists would crowd around in admiration and exclaim in wonder. Finally, the guide pointed to a small human skull, and in a hushed voice said: “Ladies and gentlemen - the skull of William Shakespeare!”

You could hear a feather drop such was the reverence and awe until a noisy kid argued, “Rubbish! - that couldn’t possibly be the head of Shakespeare – it’s far too small.”

The guide retorted, “Excuse me - that is the skull of Mr. William Shakespeare when he was twelve years old.”



References And Resources For More Information


AARP (2009), Planning Complete Streets for an Aging America, American Association for Retired Persons Public Policy Institute (; at


Community Impact Assessment Website (, sponsored by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, provides information on methods for evaluating the impacts of transportation projects and programs on communities.


Complete Streets ( is a campaign to promote roadway designs that effectively accommodate multiple modes and support local planning objectives.


Context Sensitive Solutions (, is a comprehensive website devoted to CSD, sponsored by the Project for Public Spaces (


Reid Ewing (2003), Overcoming Impediments to Context-Sensitive Street Design, Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting (


FHWA (1997), Flexibility in Highway Design, Federal Highway Administration, FHWA Pub. No. FHWA-PD-97-062 (


FHWA (2001), Transportation and Community and System Preservation Pilot Program, Federal Highway Administration ( This is a comprehensive initiative of research and grants to investigate the relationships between transportation and community and system preservation and private sector-based initiatives.


FHWA (2002), Context Sensitive Design/Thinking Beyond the Pavement, Federal Highway Administration (


Benjamin Fried (2004), “The Road Ahead: How Context-Sensitive Solutions Will Change Our Streets,” Making Places, Project for Public Spaces (, January 2004.


Jonathan Gifford, Flexible Urban Transportation, Elsevier (, 2003.


Keith Harrison and Stephanie Roth (2010), “Risking Success Through Flexible Design,” Public Roads, Vo. 73, No. 4; at


ITE Context Sensitive Solutions Website ( provides extensive technical resources on Context Sensitive Planning.


ITE (2010), Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context-Sensitive Approach, An ITE Recommended Practice, Institute of Transportation Engineers ( and Congress for New Urbanism (; draft version at


KTC (1998), Thinking Beyond the Pavement; Context-Sensitive Design Workshop Presentations, Kentucky Transportation Center (


Daniel Kueper (2010), “The Context Sensitive State Design Manual,” ITE Journal (, Vol. 80, No. 11, pp. 30-35.


Elizabeth MacDonald, Rebecca Sanders and Paul Supawanich (2008), The Effects Of Transportation Corridors’ Roadside Design Features On User Behavior And Safety, And Their Contributions To Health, Environmental Quality, And Community Economic Vitality: A Literature Review, University of California Transportation Center (


Metro (2003), Creating Livable Streets: Street Design Guidelines for 2040, Portland Metro (


MLUI (2004), People and Pavement: Transportation Design that Respects Communities, Michigan Land Use Institute (


PennDOT & NJDOT (2008), Smart Transportation Guidebook, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the New Jersey Department of Transportation, Smart-Transportation Partnership (; at


PPS (2000), How Transportation and Community Partnerships Are Shaping America; Part II: Streets and Roads, Project for Public Spaces ( for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.


Scenic America (2000), Getting It Right In the Right of Way: Citizen Participation in Context-Sensitive Highway Design, Scenic America (


Smart Growth Network ( provides information and support for Smart Growth planning and program implementation.


Nikiforos Stamatiadis (2001), “A European Approach to Context Sensitive Design,” Transportation Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3 (, Fall 2001, pp. 41-48.


TRB (2000), Context Sensitive Design for Integrating Highway and Street Projects with Communities and the Environment, Taskforce 114, NCHRP, Transportation Research Board  (


TRB (2002), Best Practices For Achieving Context-Sensitive Solutions, Transportation Research Board, NCHRP Report 480 ( This guidebook focuses on how state departments of transportation and other transportation agencies can incorporate context-sensitive solutions into transportation project development.


TRB (2012), Going the Distance Together: A Citizen’s Guide to Context Sensitive Solutions for Better Transportation, Web Document 184, National Cooperative Highway Research Program, Transportation Research Board (; at This easy-to-understand but comprehensive report describes how citizens can become involved in transportation planning, from setting strategic goals, to specific project design and operations. This report provides an introduction to key transport planning concepts and issues, guidance for citizen involvement, and comprehensive reference information.


USEPA, Smart Growth Policy Database, US Environmental Protection Agency ( This database provides information on hundreds of examples of policies that support Smart Growth.


WSDOT (2003), Building Projects that Build Communities: Recommended Best Practices, Community Partnership Forum, Washington State Department of Transportation (

This Encyclopedia is produced by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute to help improve understanding of Transportation Demand Management. It is an ongoing project. Please send us your comments and suggestions for improvement.




Encyclopedia Homepage

Send Comments


Victoria Transport Policy Institute

1250 Rudlin Street, Victoria, BC,  V8V 3R7,  CANADA

Phone & Fax 250-360-1560

“Efficiency - Equity - Clarity”