Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

A global strategy for road building

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 08 October 2014


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: The distribution of major roads globally.
Figure 2: The environmental-values and road-benefits layers.
Figure 3: A global roadmap.
Figure 4: Mapped roads overlaid onto the roads-benefits layer.


  1. Dulac, J. Global Land Transport Infrastructure Requirements: Estimating Road and Railway Infrastructure Capacity and Costs to 2050 (International Energy Agency, 2013)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Laurance, W. F. et al. The future of the Brazilian Amazon. Science 291, 438–439 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Blake, S. et al. Forest elephant crisis in the Congo Basin. PLoS Biol. 5, e111 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Laurance, W. F., Goosem, M. & Laurance, S. G. Impacts of roads and linear clearings on tropical forests. Trends Ecol. Evol. 24, 659–669 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Adeney, J. M., Christensen, N. & Pimm, S. L. Reserves protect against deforestation fires in the Amazon. PLoS ONE 4, e5014 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Fearnside, P. M. & Graça, P. BR-319: Brazil’s Manaus-Porto Velho Highway and the potential impact of linking the arc of deforestation to central Amazonia. Environ. Manage. 38, 705–716 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Forman, R. T. T. et al. Road Ecology: Science and Solutions (Island Press, 2003)

  8. Tilman, D., Cassman, K. G., Matson, P. A., Naylor, R. & Polasky, S. Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418, 671–677 (2002)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Tilman, D. et al. Forecasting agriculturally driven global environmental change. Science 292, 281–284 (2001)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Perz, S. G. et al. Regional integration and local change: road paving, community connectivity and social-ecological resilience in a tri-national frontier, southwestern Amazonia. Reg. Environ. Change 12, 35–53 (2012)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Weng, L. et al. Mineral industries, growth corridors and agricultural development in Africa. Glob. Food Security 2, 195–202 (2013)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Boakes, E. H., Mace, G. M., McGowan, P. J. K. & Fuller, R. A. Extreme contagion in global habitat clearance. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 277, 1081–1085 (2010)

    Google Scholar 

  13. Laurance, W. F. & Balmford, A. A global map for road building. Nature 495, 308–309 (2013)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Bradshaw, C. J. A., Warkentin, I. G. & Sodhi, N. S. Urgent preservation of boreal carbon stocks and biodiversity. Trends Ecol. Evol. 24, 541–548 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Laporte, N. T., Stabach, J. A., Grosch, R., Lin, T. S. & Goetz, S. J. Expansion of industrial logging in central Africa. Science 316, 1451 (2007)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Mueller, N. D. et al. Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management. Nature 490, 254–257 (2012)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Weinhold, D. & Reis, E. Transportation costs and the spatial distribution of land use in the Brazilian Amazon. Glob. Environ. Change 18, 54–68 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Rudel, T. K., DeFries, R., Asner, G. P. & Laurance, W. F. Changing drivers of deforestation and new opportunities for conservation. Conserv. Biol. 23, 1396–1405 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Phalan, B., Onial, M., Balmford, A. & Green, R. E. Reconciling food production and biodiversity conservation: Land sharing and land sparing compared. Science 333, 1289–1291 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Barber, C. P., Cochrane, M. A., Souza, C. M., Jr & Laurance, W. F. Roads, deforestation, and the mitigating effect of protected areas in the Amazon. Biol. Conserv. 177, 203–209 (2014)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Gullett, W. Environmental impact assessment and the precautionary principle: Legislating caution in environmental protection. Australas. J. Environ. Manage. 5, 146–158 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Laurance, W. F. Forest destruction: the road to ruin. New Sci. 194 25 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Lawrence, D. P. Environmental Impact Assessment: Practical Solutions to Recurrent Problems (John Wiley & Sons, 2003)

  24. Laurance, W. F. et al. Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas. Nature 489, 290–294 (2012)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Caro, T., Dobson, A., Marshall, A. J. & Peres, C. A. Compromise solutions between conservation and road building in the tropics. Curr. Biol. 24, R722–R725 (2014)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Warner, E. et al. Modeling biofuel expansion effects on land use change dynamics. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 015003 (2013)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Campbell W. B., López Ortíz S., eds. Integrating Agriculture, Ecotourism, and Conservation: Examples from the Field (Springer, 2011)

  28. Challinor, A. J. et al. A meta-analysis of crop yield under climate change and adaptation. Nature Clim. Chang. 4, 287–291 (2014)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  29. Edwards, D. P. et al. Mining and the African environment. Conserv. Lett. 7, 302–311 (2014)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Balmford, A., Green, R. & Phalan, B. What conservationists need to know about farming. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 279, 2714–2724 (2012)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


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

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to William F. Laurance.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Roadmaps for northern South America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Magnified images such as these could be integrated with local-scale data to facilitate actual road planning. Values of the environmental-values and road-benefits layers are each divided into deciles, yielding 100 unique colour combinations. See Supplementary Information for data sources.

Supplementary information

Supplementary information

This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1-18 and Supplementary References. (PDF 2397 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Laurance, W., Clements, G., Sloan, S. et al. A global strategy for road building. Nature 513, 229–232 (2014).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing