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Road development

Project focussed on the patterns of road development in tropical forests.


 In the Brazilian Amazon the majority of roads built are unofficial and there is a distinct lack of spatial information on the location and extent of these roads. This presents a problem for policy makers and conservationists who need spatial information on current and future roads in order to assess potential impacts and make informed decisions. Given there are complex dynamics and interactions of road development with economics, policy, technology, demographic and cultural factors, which vary between regions, it is unsurprising that few models of road development exist to help the situation. This Project seeks to quantify past road development patterns, increase capacity to monitor current development and generate models to predict future development.


Roads are an important and necessary part of everyday life for most people, forming the basis of the overland transportation network (along with railways) in nearly all countries. Road development influences a wide range of phenomena, from human society, business and economies, to the natural environment. In regional development, roads are often perceived as the initial stage of development, especially in tropical areas where they open access to remote areas for colonisation, agricultural development, and resource extraction. Roads further facilitate development by providing market access for rural producers, integrating economic sectors and reducing the cost of spatial mobility).

Global road networks have been expanding at a rapid rate since the 1900’s, making roads a distinctive feature in any landscape, with many countries giving 1-2% of their land surface over to roads and roadsides. In many emerging economies, road building is vital for stimulating and maintaining economic growth. Today the highest rates of road expansion can be seen in the developing tropics and in emerging economies, where roads are given high priority by governments to encourage growth and reduce poverty through increasing spatial connectivity, aiding travel, helping establish land claims and facilitating the extraction of resources 

 Despite the irrefutable socio-economic benefits that roads bring to humans, they often result in negative impacts on the environment. The ecological effects of roads spread far beyond the physical footprint of the network and may impact 15-20% of the surrounding land. The ecological effects of roads are diverse, ranging from road mortality events, loss of habitat, the formation of barriers to animal dispersal and gene flow, to, altering habitat structure, creating edges, introducing pollutants, changing hydrological processes and increasing susceptibility to alien invasion. These effects vary across biomes, habitats and scales. Many road impacts eventually cause changes to biodiversity richness and species composition.

The close links between roads and deforestation means that roads are often a key spatial determinant of land use conversion; strongly influencing the rates and patterns of habitat loss. As such, infrastructure, including road and rail networks, is often incorporated into land use change models. These models project future land conversions with a view to quantify future changes in carbon flux, climate change and biodiversity. However, the spatio-temporal patterns of road network development are poorly understood and seldom quantified. It has been found that approximately two thirds of papers predicting land use change in the Amazon region use roads as a predictor of future land use. Yet, the majority of these land use change models treat road development as a static phenomena (given the rate at which roads change, this is simply not realistic). Thus models that can characterise and predict road development play a vital role in future land use modelling. As such, there is burgeoning interest in predicting road development especially the case of developing nations, which are high in natural resources, where road development is rapid and often not centrally managed. Unfortunately, characterisation of large scale spatiotemporal patterns in road network development has been greatly overlooked to date.

We seek to address this through predictive modelling.




To download the code for the models used in Large scale spatio-temporal patterns of road development in the Amazon rainforest go to:

Matthew mentions our road model at TechFest 2014, in the Planetary Predictions video - Yay!




  • Temporal patterns of development
  • Road models
  • Satellites & roads
  • Roads as inputs to deforestation models


Road maps of the Amazon

The lack of data on road location; Green and Pink lines show the road coverage from two popular road map databases. The Blue lines show the actual coverage of roads in the Brazilian Amazon.