“Streets and roads can knit communities together and can enhance the character and identity of the place where they pass. They can become symbols of pride for a community, have a considerable economic impact on local businesses and help create strong and viable community centers. In other words, improving the livability of streets is not just a pedestrian, vehicle traffic, bicycle or a transit issue – all must be considered together.”

–Project for Public Spaces, Inc. The Role of Transit in Creating Livable Communities

Conventional transportation planning involves a limited group of people making decisions focused only on reducing congestion and costs, while increasing safety for motorists, by building wider and straighter roads. In this process, transportation professionals think about how to get more cars faster through an area, rather than creating streets that are meaningful community places with positive cultural or environmental impacts. Today, many DOTs are choosing to build roads in a different way. They are looking more and more to create roads and transportation networks that preserve the scenic, cultural, historic and environmental resources of the places they serve.

This new approach of building roads “in context” fundamentally changes the role of both transportation planners and community activists. The “context sensitive solution” (CSS) enables transportation planners to become Community Builders. CSS also helps the community recognize that it is responsible for proactively defining its goals and working with the DOT to implement them.

According to PPS Transportation Director David Burwell, CSS is the third and most important stage in the evolution of transportation agencies from a mission focus to a customer-service focus. The first stage, known as “design and defend,” dominated during the construction of the interstate highway system: Design the interstate segment and then defend it in a public hearing. The second stage, “manage and maintain,” took shape as the interstate system neared completion and the increase in motor traffic led to new maintenance strategies. But in the effort to move more traffic more efficiently, projects carried out during these two stages often left places, particularly small towns, behind, struggling to recapture the vitality they once enjoyed.

“What CSS then brings us to is the third stage, which is ‘ask and implement’ — go out, ask people what they want from their transportation system, and then do it,” says Burwell. “‘Ask and implement’ is what you do when you want to tie the whole system together–rail, air, transit, bike/ped–and focus on community goals.”