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All these cars and highways put more than humans at risk

Biologist William Laurance explains why road expansion is bad for wildlife.

When President Eisenhower advocated for our national highway system, it made interstate travel and trade significantly faster and easier, improving many lives in the process. As populations have grown and continually more cars have gone into service, roads continue to be added to accommodate them. Consider the expansion of cities since then, and the huge number of motorists around the world, and it's hard to think of what life would be like without these important roadways.

More cars and more roads, though, have their downsides, too, as we have become painfully aware. Greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and fatal crashes affect motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike. If you think it's bad now, imagine the problems we face when 2 billion cars take to the roads by 2030. And it's not just humans that are imperiled by this increase in traffic.

In the US alone, a million vertibrates become roadkill every day.

According to biologist William Laurance, writing for BioGraphic, the effects of our precious motor vehicles on animal life are pretty grim, to put it mildly. In the US alone, a million vertibrates become roadkill every day. That includes endangered species like bighorn sheep, ocelots, and desert tortoises, to name a few. Those bugs splattered on your windshield are important parts of the ecosystem, too, and cars do a number on them (to the tune of 1.6 trillion insects a year in the Netherlands alone). Around the world, countless animals are reduced to rotting roadside carcasses every year.

It's more than impacts with vehicles harming wildlife. Chemical pollution from cars can spread hundreds of feet from the side of the road, contaminating water sources and aquatic ecosystems, harming plant and animal life alike. Additionally, noise pollution adversely affects animal behavior. Laurance notes that migrating birds, for instance are found in worse conditions near roads, as the onslaught of noise causes them to spend more time being vigilant and less time foraging. Low frequency sounds from roadways could be disruptive at great distances for animal communication.

Certainly, shifting to electric mobility, and thus and reducing harmful emissions and engine noise, could be helpful to wildlife, but the very existence of roads cause their own problems. Roads act as barriers to wildlife, which fragments and reduces their populations, especially arboreal species that travel from tree to tree through the canopy. Switching to a cleaner mode of propulsion isn't going to help animals that refuse to cross an artificial clearing that divides its habitat. And, as Laurance points out, more roads beget more roads – legal or illegal – opening up wilderness to poachers, illegal mining, and other dangers. "Globally, the frenetic expansion of roads is probably the single greatest threat to nature," says Laurance.

So what can we do to help? Laurence suggests driving smaller, more efficient cars, plan roads more carefully, designate some spaces as off-limits to road-building, and raise taxes on fossil fuels and the vehicles that consume them. Read more at BioGraphic.

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