Traditionally the twin objectives of high speed and high levels of service yield an infrastructure agenda that consists almost entirely of plans to build new streets and roads, and to widen, straighten, and flatten existing ones. It was in response to this culture of “transportation as if nothing else mattered” that transportation agencies began to suffer the wrath of an outraged public. It was this sentiment that sparked the “asphalt rebellion” that has across the country, and the federal historic and environmental protection laws of the 1960’s.
But even before the advent of federal transportation legislation through ISTEA in 1991, federal, and in some cases state and municipal transportation policy was beginning to change. By 1995, the National Highway System Act would state that highway design “may take into account…[in addition to safety, durability, and economy of maintenance]… (A) the constructed and natural environment of the area; (B) the environmental, scenic, aesthetic, historic, community, and preservation impacts of the activity; and (C) access for other modes of transportation. At the same time, federally-approved standards were removed for local roads, even if those roads received federal aid — effectively turning the question of standards over to state transportation agencies.
With these legal underpinnings in place, training programs and education have begun to occupy center stage. The Federal Highway Administration has led the way with the publication of Flexibility in Highway Design. The concept of “thinking beyond the pavement” was launched by a 1998 conference at the University of Maryland sponsored by many transportation and advocacy organizations; it was attended by 325 invited participants from 39 states and the District of Columbia. The AASHTO Green Book, never as inflexible as some thought, shows even more flexibility in its 2001 edition. And the issue of liability under state law for departing from”standards” has proved to be less intractable as well.
In 2000, the FHWA designated five state DOTs (Maryland, Connecticut, Utah, Kentucky and Minnesota) to pilot Context Sensitive Design programs aimed at a thorough review of agency standards and procedures, but also of agency organization, the transportation planning process, and training. Since then, these five states, plus others like New Jersey that had already begun the “culture change” process on their own, have developed an increasing body of information that is being shared with other agencies through conferences, publications, and training programs. New leaders in transportation engineering are beginning to emphasize the importance of context sensitive solutions, building a momentum that is spreading to practitioners across the country. “It’s important to put together a transportation system that considers quality of life…The bottom line is, we have the tools to do it — we just need to implement them,” says Tom Warne, formerly both Executive Director of the Utah Department of Transportation and President of AASHTO.
CSS posits a new role for the transportation professional: as a resource to communities and public policy decisionmakers; it requires a commitment to much greater public involvement. Does this mean “caving in” to the public? Not at all. It means, rather, providing the technical expertise and information necessary for a community to make its own informed decisions — a necessity in a democracy.