Change always require a catalyst. Someone, or something, deciding things cannot go on the way they are.

In 2019, Oregon Department of Transportation (DOT) released the Blueprint for Urban Design, a bridging document that establishes performance-based criteria to be used when planning and designing urban projects on the state system. It will enable Oregon DOT to begin incorporating context-sensitive design criteria into Oregon DOT designs now and update their manuals over time.

In 2017, Florida DOT adopted a context classification system as part of a department-wide shift described as “putting the right street in the right place.”

Montana DOT is embracing performance-based design and adding better quality performance-based metrics through the 2016 Road Design and 2019 Safety Engineering Manuals. Minnesota DOT has been applying the principles of NCHRP Report 785, highlighting methods to break away from rigid, code-based design to flexible, performance-based design.

Each of these documents is an example of state-level guidance that emphasizes context considerations in every project. We as Kittelson staff get excited when we see agencies wanting to change their practices in these important ways.

Advancing Context-Sensitive Transportation Solutions Is Like Planting Trees

Traditionally, transportation engineers have been trained to apply a set of standards that primarily address function. The issue with these standards is they do not always fit within the unique context of each project, and this can result in undesirable, sometimes uncomfortable conditions for the people who use that transportation system.

Performance-based design is a shift away from applying strict design standards and toward designing based on context. Each document described above integrates national trends and research to acknowledge the way that transportation interacts with its community and environment.

But these documents were not overnight ideas, nor is this a brand-new shift. They were made possible by decades of foundational work that, piece by piece, moved the transportation profession forward in considering a project’s context and impacts when making decisions.

Much of this started with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In 1970, NEPA was a watershed moment that spurred an evolving conversation about the environmental and social impacts of transportation projects.

And NEPA was possible because of the work that came before it.

Senior Principal Engineers Hermanus Steyn and Brian Ray have a way of describing how these shifts become possible: planting trees. No, we’re not literally referring to landscaping (although we do have a very talented landscape architect on staff). This is a metaphor to describe how the shade we’re sitting under today—i.e. these meaningful advancements in the transportation profession—is the result of seeds that were planted decades earlier, and growth over time.

“These state-level documents are some of the “trees” that are growing today because of seeds that were planted 10-20 years ago through NEPA and other foundational work in context-sensitive solutions,” says Brian.

We’re benefiting today from the shade of trees that were planted before us. And it’s our job to plant and water trees today so that others can sit under their shade later.

“For an industry to be successful, we can’t be building our own kingdoms,” says Hermanus. “We should be planting trees for future generations.”

To better understand this concept, let’s go a few decades back in time.

Photo by David Herrera.

The Detrimental Impacts of Context Insensitivity

Construction of America’s highway system is an example of a time when context sensitivity wasn’t taken into account with transportation infrastructure projects.

In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, nearly 50,000 miles of highway were paved across the United States. The massive highway system came about through the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which called for uniform interstate design standards and a federal share of project costs at 90 percent.

These highways were big. Flat. Straight. Fast. The design of the highways is a classic example of rigid designs that didn’t always consider context.

“Highway engineers dominated the decision-making,” says law professor Joseph DiMento. “They were trained to design without much consideration for how a highway might impact urban fabric — they were worried about the most efficient way of moving people from A to B.”

With civil engineers responding to the pressure for efficiency and maximizing the 90/10 federal match, context sensitivity didn’t have much of a chance. And sadly, efficiency and inflexibility weren’t the only concepts winning the day. In an article for The Atlantic titled “The Role of Highways in American Poverty,” Alana Semuels describes how a community of color in Syracuse, New York disproportionately suffered from a lack of context sensitivity requirements, becoming one of many communities targeted for removal.

“That neighborhood, called the 15th Ward, was located between Syracuse University and the city’s downtown. It was predominantly African American. One man who lived there at the time, Junie Dunham, told me that although the 15th Ward was poor, it was the type of community that you often picture in 1950s America: fathers going off to jobs in the morning; kids playing in the streets; families gathering in the park on the weekends or going on Sunday strolls. He remembers collecting scraps from the streets and bringing them to the junkyard for pennies, which he would use to buy comics.

To outsiders, though, the 15th Ward was the scene of abject poverty close to two of Syracuse’s biggest draws—the university and downtown. They worried about race riots because so many people were crowded into the neighborhood and prevented from going anywhere else. They decided that the best plan would be to tear down the 15th Ward and replace it with an elevated freeway.   

The completion of the highway, I-81 [Interstate 81], which ran through the urban center, had the same effect it has had in almost all cities that put interstates through their hearts. It decimated a close-knit African American community. And when the displaced residents from the 15th Ward moved to other city neighborhoods, the white residents fled. It was easy to move. There was a beautiful new highway that helped their escape.”

Things could not go on the way they were.

Change requires a catalyst.

Ripple Effects from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970

As one of the first calls to slow down and consider impacts of infrastructure projects, NEPA was one of those seeds that has grown into the “context-sensitive trees” we’re watering today.

We think of NEPA in association with the natural environment—which is true—but NEPA also spurred conversation and guidance about considering impact to the human environment.

“After NEPA came through, the transportation profession began talking about the impact to the human environment and community. Conversations continued to advance the concept that not all civil engineering projects are good,” said Brian. “A breakthrough was the ability to measure impacts through the introduction of community impact assessments in 1996.”

A 1998 conference for transportation planners called “Thinking Beyond the Pavement” was another catalyst in the movement toward context-sensitive design. At this conference, a list of qualities was developed that demonstrate how context—or the needs of, and impact to, the community—should be taken into account in projects.

Brian and Hermanus point to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)’s leadership in declaring there are better ways to build projects. FHWA’s Flexibility in Highway Design was a milestone in geometric design. A complementary publication is AASHTO’s A Guide for Achieving Flexibility in Highway Design. These more flexible design standards were important steps in the journey toward context-sensitive solutions.

“NEPA was based on these three sensitivities: impact to the natural environment, social impact, and context sensitivity,” says Brian. “Because of the people who have continued to advance these important concepts, these same sensitivities are reflected at a more refined and detailed level in the Blueprint for Urban Design and other guidance documents being published today.”

Community engagement for a complete streets project in Florida.

“NEPA was the jet ski skimming over the surface,” adds Hermanus. “The guidance manuals we’re publishing today dive into context sensitivity in more detail. The conversations we’re pushing now might fundamentally change how performance-based design is approached and evaluated in the future.”

It’s been encouraging to see this progress in our profession, but we are far from done in considering context and community needs in transportation design. As Brian and Hermanus say, there are still many more “trees” to plant and water.

Work To Be Done in Advancing Context-Sensitive Solutions

When we talk about social impact and context sensitivity, we can’t ignore that highway development is just one piece of the history of communities, particularly communities of color, being wronged and underserved through redlining practices and transportation decisions. The conversations about racial equity and justice taking place in our world today point us to the reality that racial equity in our projects is a needed focus that will require humility, active listening, openness, and unrelenting forward momentum on the conversations emphasized by NEPA in 1970.

The impact of transportation on health is another critical component of context. In addition to the relationship between transportation and the spread of infectious diseases like the COVID-19 pandemic, transportation and health have always been closely connected. Transportation impacts access to employment and affordable, healthy food options. Safe facilities for walking and biking impact active transportation, which is linked to health outcomes. And the needs of every community are different. Understanding the health impacts of individual transportation decisions is key for a truly context-sensitive solution.

Although we’ve used “environment” in broad terms so far in this article, the impact of transportation on the natural environment must also be considered in context-sensitive solutions. Nearly 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from transportation, so our projects have big implications for taking care of our natural world. This is an area continuing to be advanced by research and it is important to continue to better understand its relationship to transportation.

In addition to refining our understanding of large-scale impacts of transportation on racial equity, public health, the natural environment, and many other factors, the true definition of context-sensitive solutions is considering the context of each project uniquely and deliberately. New guidance must continue to push transportation professionals toward listening to and understanding each community’s unique situation and needs.

“It’s network planning,” says Yolanda Takesian, Principal Planner at Kittelson. “It’s policy related to design and who is doing it. If you’re in a rural area, who participates? What do developers need to be thinking about? If it’s a college town, that is another different context. Transportation hubs look very different from one area to another.”

Performance-based, context-sensitive design allows built projects to better reflect the original intended community outcomes. Instead of building transportation infrastructure based on coded standards that may not fit the context and might harm rather than help a community, context-sensitive transportation infrastructure elements become valued assets that benefit and serve their communities.

Planting and watering those trees through today’s initiatives sometimes means pushing through historical or institutional inertia, overcoming “analysis paralysis” (the need to quantify everything), and understanding that every time we learn something, we raise several more questions. But these are concepts that are too important not to keep advancing.

A Profession That Continues to Accelerate

In a career in transportation, you can be a social justice advocate and a design engineer at the same time. The increasingly-recognized intersection of transportation and equity, health, and environment seems to be generating a kind of buzz in the industry that’s attracting younger professionals. But it’s exciting no matter where you’re at in your career, say Brian and Hermanus. Both in the second halves of their careers, these two engineers are more excited than ever about the work they’re doing.

“I went through many different phases in my career, one of which was moving to the United States,” says Hermanus. “At first, I was a typical civil engineer that did what I was supposed to do, and then I realized: I can do so much more. I started understanding design more when I realized what was happening from a safety and operations perspective. I diversified in my career and learned what other people are excited about. Then I took that knowledge and awareness and put it back into transportation design. Designing for all roadway users is exciting because there’s not just one recipe you follow.”

“Hermanus and I are kindred spirits in our careers now, but we came at it differently,” says Brian. “When I came out of school, I wasn’t excited about transportation. I had been taught analytical elements of transportation—how to compute a traffic flow, horizontal curvature radius—but I didn’t have the context and it meant little to me. After coming out of school, I worked on a network project. I saw someone looking at an interchange project from a land use perspective. Suddenly I realized it was the coolest thing in the world. I needed to see how all of it fit. That became the catalyst for my passion for systems planning and integrating transportation and land use. It’s this broader context that should guide and dictate what the transportation projects look like and what its impact is. I’ve seen such an acceleration in the last 10 years. Health, culture, heritage, it’s all so connected.”

How to Advance Context-Sensitive Shifts as a Transportation Professional

How can individual transportation engineers and planners plant and water these trees? First, Brian and Hermanus suggest, it starts with awareness.

Know your history—beyond the dominant perspective, learn the history of transportation in communities and the varied ways those communities were impacted by it. Look for ways to educate yourself.

Secondly, listen for the sound. The sound of voices that aren’t being heard, of impacts that aren’t being recognized. Pay attention to it and be brave enough to call it out. A lack of context sensitivity has led to too many mistakes in the transportation profession.

Thirdly, be open and humble. to move forward and do better, we have to realize where mistakes have been made. A solution that’s truly tailored to community needs can only come about through active listening with an openness to change an approach based on what you learn.

Continue the Conversation

Where do you fit in this article? Are you a student gravitating toward the exciting potential of a career in transportation? Have you been in the field for more than 25 years, like Brian and Hermanus, and seen these shifts taking place, maybe even been a part of them? We’d love to hear your story and talk more about these important concepts, and welcome a follow-up.

For additional reading, we invite you to learn more about ODOT’s Blueprint for Urban Design and FDOT’s Context Classification System.