• A Corrigendum to this article was published on 08 October 2014

Abstract

The number and extent of roads will expand dramatically this century1. Globally, at least 25 million kilometres of new roads are anticipated by 2050; a 60% increase in the total length of roads over that in 2010. Nine-tenths of all road construction is expected to occur in developing nations1, including many regions that sustain exceptional biodiversity and vital ecosystem services. Roads penetrating into wilderness or frontier areas are a major proximate driver of habitat loss and fragmentation, wildfires, overhunting and other environmental degradation, often with irreversible impacts on ecosystems2,3,4,5. Unfortunately, much road proliferation is chaotic or poorly planned3,4,6, and the rate of expansion is so great that it often overwhelms the capacity of environmental planners and managers2,3,4,5,6,7. Here we present a global scheme for prioritizing road building. This large-scale zoning plan seeks to limit the environmental costs of road expansion while maximizing its benefits for human development, by helping to increase agricultural production, which is an urgent priority given that global food demand could double by mid-century8,9. Our analysis identifies areas with high environmental values where future road building should be avoided if possible, areas where strategic road improvements could promote agricultural development with relatively modest environmental costs, and ‘conflict areas’ where road building could have sizeable benefits for agriculture but with serious environmental damage. Our plan provides a template for proactively zoning and prioritizing roads during the most explosive era of road expansion in human history.

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Acknowledgements

We thank T. Brooks, S. Butchart, J. Geldmann, S. Goosem, C. Mendenhall, N. Pares, S. Pimm, U. Srinivasan, N. Velho, and two anonymous referees for comments and feedback. The Australian Research Council provided support.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science, and College of Marine and Environmental Sciences, James Cook University, Cairns, Queensland 4878, Australia

    • William F. Laurance
    • , Gopalasamy Reuben Clements
    • , Sean Sloan
    • , Miriam Goosem
    •  & Oscar Venter
  2. Kenyir Research Institute, Universiti Malaya Terengganu, 21030 Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia

    • Gopalasamy Reuben Clements
  3. Institute on the Environment, and Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • Christine S. O’Connell
  4. Center for the Environment, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Nathan D. Mueller
  5. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK

    • David P. Edwards
  6. Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK

    • Ben Phalan
    •  & Andrew Balmford
  7. Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology, and School of Botany, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia

    • Rodney Van Der Ree
  8. Conservation Strategy Fund, 663-2300 Curridabat, San José, Costa Rica

    • Irene Burgues Arrea

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Contributions

W.F.L. and A.B. initially conceived the study, and W.F.L. coordinated its design, analysis, and manuscript preparation. G.R.C. and S.S. conducted the spatial analyses; C.S.O., N.D.M., O.V., G.R.C., S.S. and B.P. generated or collated key datasets; and M.G., D.P.E., R.V.D.R. and I.B.A. provided ideas and critical feedback.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William F. Laurance.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13717

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