Impacts on nature

Page Last modified 19 Apr 2016, 05:04 PM

Indicator 5: Proximity of transport infrastructures to designated nature areas / Fragmentation

The expansion of transport infrastructure networks and the continuous growth in traffic in the EU pose an important threat to biodiversity, and conflict more and more with nature conservation policies. A total of 1 650 special bird areas (SPAs) designated up to 1997, or 66 % of the total number designated, have at least one major transport infrastructure within 5 km of their centres, as have 430 Ramsar sites (wetlands), or 63 % of the total. Further expansion of the transport infrastructure and intensification of its use could jeopardise the future of many important designated nature areas.

Figure 1.14a: Ramsar areas (wetlands) with major transport infrastructure within 5 km of their centre

Source: EEA-ETC/LC


  • Preserve biodiversity and protect designated areas.


  • Number of SPAs and Ramsar wetland areas designated for nature protection which have a major transport infrastructure (motorways, national and principal roads, railways, airports and maritime ports) within 5 km of their centre.
  • Proxy indicator: Average size (in km²) of land parcels that are not fragmented by transport infrastructure.

Note: special bird areas (SPAs) are those designated by the EC Birds Directive; Ramsar wetlands are those designated in the global Ramsar Convention for the protection of wetlands.

Policy and targets

Habitats and species are disturbed or damaged by traffic noise and light, vehicle emissions, run-off substances from road surfaces and runways (to which salt and other de-icing chemicals have been applied) and oil discharges, particularly to rivers and seas. Some animal species are particularly susceptible to collision with traffic. Proximity to major traffic infrastructure and growth in traffic using such infrastructure can therefore clearly affect habitats and species.

Linear infrastructure (roads, railways, canals) may fragment habitats, thereby reducing the living space for endemic species, and can provide new pathways for the influx of other species. They may also act as barriers to movement and genetic interchange between populations, especially for vertebrates. The splitting of communities can also have socio-economic impacts.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity sets up a general framework for the conservation of habitats and species. At the European level, the Pan-European Biological and Landscape Diversity Strategy provides a framework for coordination of various actions (on species, ecosystems, landscapes, public awareness) between European states. However, lack of integration of biodiversity concerns into other policy areas is currently one of the greatest obstacles to securing conservation goals. Integration is therefore a key element of the Community Biodiversity Strategy (CEC, 1998a).

The designation of areas for nature protection is one of the longest established and most common measures for the protection of biodiversity. Various international and national regulations have been established to this end, such as the Birds (CEC, 1979) and Habitats (CEC, 1992) Directives. These two Directives aim at protecting more than 10 % of the territory of the EU through designation of sites for nature protection during the first decade of the new century. However, infringements of existing nature conservation regulations as a result of transport infrastructure projects are still regularly reported. Even though environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are now customarily carried out for large transport infrastructure projects (in accordance with national legislation and EU Directive on environmental impact assessment (CEC, 1985)), these often fail to consider alternative routes to avoid pressures on nature.



Figure 1.14b: Special birds areas (SPA) with major transport infrastructure within 5 km of their centre

Source: EEA-ETC/LC

This indicator gives an approximate indication of the pressures that transport infrastructure and its use can impose on designated nature areas, and can also provide an indication of the level of pressure on other nature areas.

Examination of the percentage of designated areas within 5 km of major EU transport infrastructures reveals that the proximity problem:

  • in Ramsar areas: is very high for roads and railways, high for maritime ports in nearly all cases and less important for airports (Figure 1.14a);
  • in SPA areas: is high to very high for roads, high but somewhat lower for railways, and much less important for airports and maritime ports (Figure 1.14b).

Transport disturbance to biodiversity is higher in Member States with dense infrastructures (such as Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Luxembourg). However, the problem seems to be general and not dependent on the number of sites in the Member State. Few nature protection areas are far from major transport infrastructure.


  • increases in major infrastructure are likely to significantly increase the effect of transport infrastructure on existing designated areas in all countries;
  • it will be increasingly difficult to designate new areas which will not be close to infrastructure elements.

Map 1.6 shows that most areas in the EU are highly fragmented by transport infrastructure. The average size of contiguous land units that are not cut through by major transport infrastructure ranges from about 20 km² in Belgium to nearly 600 km² in Finland, with an EU average of about 130 km² (Figure 1.15).


Map 1.6: Partitioning of land by transport infrastructure

Source: EEA-ETC/LC

Figure 1.15: Average size of non-fragmented land parcels

Source: EEA-ETC/LC

Future work

The proximity of transport infrastructure to a nature conservation area is closely linked to the potential risk of disturbance to that area. Data improvements that would enhance the value of this indicator include:

  • digitisation of information on the boundaries and areas of designated nature areas;
  • inclusion of other types of designated area (such as those under the Habitats Directive);
  • updated information on designated areas (including information on species and habitat distribution) and on land cover;
  • testing of the indicator using distances of disturbance other than 5 km.

The EEA will further develop the fragmentation indicator by carrying out an assessment of the ecological quality of land parcels.

Both indicators will be improved in close coordination with various other initiatives at international and Member State levels. At the European level, EEA, EUROSTAT and OECD are jointly developing indicators for environmental reporting. The SBSTTA (Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice) of the Convention on Biological Diversity is developing biological indicators.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100