Insights

Put it Into Context: Classifying Roadways for the Future

Whether driving through a neighborhood, across town or across the country, our nation’s streets and highways were designed to meet travelers’ specific needs. When designing this infrastructure, transportation planners consider everything from speed, capacity, safety and the existing and future land development needs of a community. The standards they follow, known as context classification, help define the various needs for urban and rural areas. 

One county in Florida is looking beyond the traditional state context classification standards resulting in a progressive approach to their future roadway planning and development. 

What is Context Classification?

Context based classification is a way of classifying roads to prioritize the type of roadway user while considering existing and future development patterns. Transportation infrastructure – such as roads, pedestrian facilities and multi-modal accommodations – is assigned context by the way it is integrated with the community. 

The Federal Highway Association (FHWA) sets standards surrounding the functional classification of roadways to guide state and local agencies. While states reference these guidelines, not many local agencies are using them to drive transportation planning and design efforts. They may reference the context, but they don’t necessarily have assignments to give direction to roadway designers or planners. In addition, most state Departments of Transportation focus on existing land use, instead of future development, when talking about context classifications. 

A Progressive Approach

In Hillsborough County, Florida, officials are looking beyond the state and federal requirements, using context classification to help create a resilient and sustainable transportation infrastructure that will satisfy the needs of each community. Most of the County’s roadway network was designed in the 1970s and 1980s when the focus was on moving traffic to its destination as quickly as possible. The new classifications are aimed at addressing a shift to multimodal needs, including pedestrian and bicycle traffic, a trend on the rise in Florida and across the country.  

As the County plans for future development to support its growing population, officials are collaborating with B&N to determine the appropriate Context Based Classification for each of their roads and to design element guidelines that match or complement each context. This includes the development of a context classification database for all the county’s arterials and collectors – approximately 4,000 road segments across 400 roads. 

Customized Classification

The Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT’s) context classification system identifies assignment of Preliminary Context Classification based on existing conditions, which includes eight classifications that range from natural, rural, suburban and urban. 

B&N made variations to the existing classifications creating a customized approach to address the County’s specific needs. This was accomplished by reducing the number of categories from eight to five based on the County’s roadway characteristics, existing and future planned development patterns, and the community needs. 

A combination of an ArcGIS online mapping tool and manual reviews were used to establish the custom classifications. Once they were defined, Typical Cross Sections (TCS) for each context were developed based on roadway type, target speed and the anticipated non-motorist facilities. This was followed by the preparation of a County Design Manual to enforce the new context design, safety and multi-modal alternatives. Additional applications include speed management strategies, access management standards and the development of a Complete Streets Guidebook which are all developed based on context classification. 


The five customized context classification categories designed for Hillsborough County were based on roadway characteristics, existing and future planned development patterns, and community needs.

Learn More

As national leaders in transportation planning, we understand complex multimodal networks and help clients develop a vision and a complete solution that addresses their most important goals and objectives. To learn more about context classification assignments and what they can mean for your roadway planning projects, contact Linda Wu, PhD, EI, Traffic Studies Analyst. 

Linda Wu, PhD, EI, Traffic Studies Analyst
Linda Wu, PhD, EI
Traffic Studies Analyst

RELATED CONTENT