Socio- economic benefits and environmental impacts of superhighways


Development is seen as an important component in any country’s vision in the world, however it can have major impacts on the environment, social and economic life of the same countries. According to Schiefelbusch (2010) the environmental impact can be by degrading soils and waterways, altering landscape and destroying biodiversity and habitat. Other problems associated with development and human activity include land use conflicts, human and animal conflicts, water management and environmental pollution. In addition to harming the environment, these impacts can and do have significant economic costs and negatively affect human health.

Road infrastructure is one of the key components of economic development. Without good road development movement in an economy is critically impeded resulting to curtailing of the ferrying process of produce and other goods to the market, which in turn leads to transport bottlenecks that invariably hamper economic development. Roads have significant impacts on both nearby communities and the natural environment (World Bank, 2011). Burnett (2001) points out that there are numerous benefits to having proper road networks especially in the range of social and economic benefits while to a certain extent environmental benefits.

In as much as new roads bring development to previously underdeveloped areas, sometimes this development can cause significant effects on sensitive environments and the lifestyles of the people living near or using the road. The Construction of roads has particular environmental impacts: erosion, traffic, noise, water pollution and work practices which need to be managed by road contractors (World Bank, 2011).

Environmental effects of roads may include spatial and temporal dimensions and biotic and abiotic components. Effects can be local (along a road segment) or extensive (related to a large road network). Spatial effects of roads vary because species habitat requirements and ecosystem characteristics are diverse. Road construction may negatively affect species, habitats and physical and chemical characteristics at the site and landscape levels. Road effects could have direct and indirect impacts. There are those common during construction, those along a newly completed road, and those with long-term impacts (Diagle, 2010).

The social impacts on the other hand and their distributional effects across various segments of society have traditionally been viewed as secondary or even tertiary concerns relative to economic and environmental impacts. While social economic impact assessment tends to focus on the avoidance of adverse social impacts, the assessment also provides a forum for planning how to maximize the beneficial impacts of a proposed development. Beneficial impacts can include: a better standard of living due to increased access to employment, business opportunities, training and education, greater access to and from a community and increased funding to improve programs.

On the economic impact note that the building of new roads, rehabilitating of existing roads and upgrading of road infrastructure all involve the use of economic resources which has to be taken in consideration when planning and making decisions on development of roads. The clear implications of these developments are accompanied by various economic activities providing local employment and a source of employment in these sectors.

It is however expected in general that road development projects must be economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound. Structured assessments of road developments can therefore help resource and land managers identify road-related benefits, problems, environmental risks, economic and social opportunities and trade-offs among possible management actions.

Development of transport facilities like road infrastructure, can play a significant role in changing the socio-economic conditions of the people of a region through dynamic externalities that such development often generates (Sengupta, 2010). It can in fact be an important element of both direct and indirect interventions for poverty reduction and improvement of socio-economic conditions of the people. In addition large amounts of money are allocated to the national and local authority roads programmes with a general view that economic development as well as social and environmental gains are stimulated by new and expanded roads.

However, road construction for socio-economic and environmental development purposes has not been evaluated extensively against a number of policy alternatives that are more likely to advance the same objectives. The ultimate aim of developmental activities, including those relating to transport infrastructure, is to promote societal welfare. However, due to the existing pattern of socio-economic structure, geo-political and historical features etc., the benefits of such developments are often not shared equitably and a variety of distributional inequalities show up at all levels-local, regional, or national.

Highway improvement projects are basically aimed to address the problems of traffic congestion, traffic accident, air pollution and improve economic development. The rationale and articulated vision of improving this vital transport corridor is to improve the economic productivity and mobility of those living along the road, facilitating regional trade and economic development. The users of the road benefit from reduced travel times. Heavy freight that transport goods to other towns and even across borders benefit from the reduced travel times due to the separation of local and thruway traffic as well as the improved surfacing and design of the road.  However, several negative impacts are also being experienced due to the highway construction and if these problems are not addressed and remedies sought rather the construction of the highway could be deemed disadvantageous rather than beneficial. Effects such as noise, water pollution, habitat destruction and disturbance, more road accidents, disruption of livelihoods and sky rocketing land values are not addressed super highway construction could be rendered problematic.

Socio-economic impacts of road development

Todaro (1981), view development as a multi-dimensional process involving change in structure, habit attitude and institution as well as acceleration of economic growth. They illustrate a significant relationship between transportation and development process. However, the nature of interaction is still a subject of debate between scholars who say development depends on many factors such as availability of resources and level of technology. In all, transportation is of great significance to development in any society. An efficient transportation system is in many ways, the bedrock of any social and economic system in terms of improving the quality of life for the common person.

The transport sector can therefore be viewed an important component of the economy impacting on development and the welfare of populations (Weisbrod and Weisbrod, 1997). When transport systems are efficient, they provide economic and social opportunities and benefits that impact throughout the economy. When transport systems are deficient, they can have an economic cost in terms of reduced or missed opportunities. Transport also carries an important social and environmental load, which cannot be neglected. From a general standpoint, the economic impacts of transportation can be direct and indirect: Direct impacts related to accessibility change where transport enables larger markets and enables to save time and costs. Indirect impacts related to the economic multiplier effect where the price of commodities or services drop and/or their variety increases (ibid).

Transportation projects can take many forms (OECD, 2002). The traditional Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) of transport analysis is based on engineering descriptions that provide useful information. Investment proposals usually specify the transportation mode(s) directly affected by the improvement. Generally, a variety of physical descriptions, such as number of lanes, length of improvement, type of materials used, and expected volume of traffic available, together with administrative and financial information including cost estimates and sources of funding are used in analysis of development impact on the socio-economics.

According to Banister and Berechman (2000) transportation developments that have taken place since the beginning of the industrial revolution have been linked to growing economic opportunities. At each stage of human societal development, a particular transport mode has been developed or adapted. However, it has been observed that throughout history that no single transport has been solely responsible for economic growth. Instead, modes have been linked with the direction and the geographical setting in which growth was taking place. For instance, major flows of international migration that occurred since the 18th century were linked with the expansion of international and continental transport systems. Transport has played a catalytic role in these migrations, transforming the economic and social geography of many nations. Concomitantly, transportation has been a tool of territorial control and exploitation, particularly during the colonial era where resource-based transport systems supported the extraction of commodities in the developing world.

Roads are clearly a critical enabling condition for improving living conditions in rural areas. However, the distribution of socioeconomic benefits resulting from a rural road is a separate issue, and there are no guarantees or inherent mechanisms to ensure that these benefits will be distributed equitably between the poor and the non-poor in communities (Asian Development Bank, 2006).

Road construction activities themselves have been found to generate significant economic growth. According to the European Investment Bank’s (EIB) 2002 study “Contribution of Major Road and Rail Infrastructure Projects to European Development”, out of 14 road infrastructure construction projects, ten had a Return on Investment (ROI) of at least 13% and only one resulted in a net loss. Whereas, out of five rail infrastructure construction projects, with one exception, the ROI rate ranged between 0% and 4%.

Socio-economic impact assessment focuses on evaluating the impacts development has on community social and economic well-being (Edwards, 2000). This analysis relies on both quantitative and qualitative measures of impacts. Development impacts are generally evaluated in terms of changes in community demographics, housing, employment and income, market effects, public services, and aesthetic qualities of the community.

Environmental impacts of road development

Infrastructure, in general, defines as a set of facilities through which goods and services are provided to the public. Its installations do not produce goods and services directly but provide inputs for all other socio-economic activities. Infrastructure is the stock of basic facilities and capital equipment needed for the functioning of a country or area; the term to refer collectively to the roads, bridges, rail lines, and similar public works that are required for an industrial economy, or a portion of it, to function.

Economic and social development is significantly dependent on efficient road transport infrastructure which facilitates delivery of agricultural produce, merchandise and commodities to markets as well as easy access to basic services (health, schools, water, trading centers, and administrative offices etc.) by the people. The benefits from efficient road transport are felt at all levels of the society, directly or indirectly, such as to include improved national economy, social income, wealth and job creation, health care, public transport and general service delivery. Improvement of all these areas is desirable for the current national aspirations including inter-sectoral growth collaborations (Perkins, 2011).

Success of Vision 2030 initiative is basically a function of the infrastructure, efficient road network being the key unit. Development of new roads and improvement of existing facilities have potential negative effects to the physical environment and social well-being of the communities as well as natural habitats. Among the potential negative impacts from road construction projects could include: environmental pollution from construction activities, risk to health and safety of the residents and employees, demand of construction materials such as water, wood, gravel and hard stones; increased run off, socio-cultural changes including loss of farming land, changes of domestic and wild animals access to water point, demolition of structures, displacement of human settlement/commercial centres, interference with animal reserves and foot paths, increased traffic, increased ambient air pollution, increased potential for road accidents, increased surface run off, flooding and associated disasters among other impacts. Other anticipated impacts from road projects is disruption of natural habitats by interference of food chains and breeding sites and habitats, risks of fatal wildlife attack, displacement or extinction of species, destruction of land, vegetation, introduction of exotic species and possible interference with natural eco-balance.

Investment opportunities arising from road development

The impact of a highway development on the activities that are accrued may be seen from the local impact and the wider regional or national level impact. The local impact is expected to be limited to the immediate neighbourhood of the highway – that is, to the towns and villages lying on both sides of the highway within a considerable distance. The entire regional or national economy lying beyond this neighbourhood should also benefit from the development in terms of the opportunities derived in increased resources (Weisbrod and Weisbrod, 1997).

Road development impact may be of a direct or indirect nature (Sengupta, et al., 2007). It may be mentioned in the context of indirect general equilibrium effects on income, output, employment, land rent and land price, poverty, etc. are realized not only in the local economies in the proximity of the highway, but are also transmitted throughout the regional, if not the national economy by way of various linkage effects.

The indirect impact of a highway development, on the other hand, would work through the dynamic developmental externalities generated through the forward and the backward linkages (Daigle, 2010). An example of this may be a change in the land use pattern in the areas that get greater connectivity due to the highway, since there will be changes in the patterns of settlement, agricultural land use and location of industries, trading and other services and non-farm unorganized sector activities.

Theoretical Review

Until the 1970s, infrastructure hardly existed in Africa as an analytic concept or category in economic theory and policy. However, in recent years due to the importance attached to it the provision and development of infrastructure has been subject of much theoretical analysis and empirical studies.

Theory of Social Overhead Capital (SOC)

The concept of overhead capital defines overhead investment aims at providing the services – transport, power, and water supply, which are basic for any productive activity. It is assumed in the theory that before building consumer goods factories, a major indivisible block of social overhead capital or infrastructure must be built and sponsored because private market initiatives will not create it in time

This investment cannot be imported from abroad, is required in large quantities and involves costly installations and in the history of western economics outside England, have usually called for public assistance or public enterprise. Typically overhead investments take a considerable time to reach maturity in growing. To be sure, all investments depend on expectations but the time range of expectations is opt to be particularly long in overhead projects because of their lumpiness combined with their high operational capital intensity. The concept of social overhead capital (SOC) includes the basic services (like transportation, communication, power, health, water supply, irrigation and drainage system) without which the primary, secondary and tertiary activities in the economy cannot function.

SOC is a pre-condition for take-off into self-sustained growth. Investment in development of those services encourages potential entrepreneurs to invest in risk bearing business. Those SOC prepare the base for expansion of economic activities by decreasing the cost and increasing the profitability of productive activities. It also helps in the creation of an educated labour force, superstructures of communication networks, and mechanism to provide energy, basic civic amenities and law and order. The theory indicates that investment in such projects have a multiplier effect on activities that can be used to improve the socio-economic conditions of people near the developments.

All these create an atmosphere that breeds entrepreneurial capabilities and sustains a climate which is throbbing with economic activities and optimistic decision. In the precondition to take – off stage that the investment in social overhead capital should create literate and technically trained personnel in the working force. They are therefore a necessary condition for self-sustaining economic growth.

Theory of unbalanced growth

Scholars such as Hirschman, Rostow, Fleming and Singer propounded the theory of unbalanced

growth as a strategy of development to be used by the underdeveloped countries. This theory stresses on the need of investment in strategic sectors of the economy instead of all the sectors simultaneously. According to the theory the other sectors would automatically develop themselves through what is known as “linkages effect”. These linkages can be further defined in their social, economic and environment categories as having great importance to the development process.

Experts maintain that investments in strategically selected industries or sectors of the economy will lead to new investment opportunities and so pave the way for further economic development. He stresses that development to take place a deliberate strategy of unbalancing the economy should be adopted. This is possible by investing either in social overhead capital or indirect productive activities. Investments in social overhead capital are advocated not because of its direct effect on the final output, but it permits and invites Direct Productive Activities (DPA) to come in and therefore some SOC is required as a prerequisite of DPA investment.

Conceptual Framework

Infrastructure development has both negative and positive impacts on the bio physical and socio-economic aspects of the environment as shown in the figure below. Socio-economic benefits associated with these development includes; facilitation of trade due to increased competition and better and diverse products, improvement of movement of people and goods and increased employment opportunities. Investments in the road sector benefit the whole society by providing access to territory and allowing poverty alleviation to take place. Consequently, the road network creates and stimulates positive synergy and enhances social cohesion and integration by giving citizens the same opportunities. Beneficiaries of infrastructure development appreciate the benefits and opportunities accrued by the improvement and thus readily take part in environmental conservation through raising awareness and pursuing environmental education so as to continue enjoying the infrastructure as well as protecting the environment.

Road transport has undeniable socio-economic benefits, which are often underestimated with respect to their negative impacts. Owing to the fact that road transport is affordable and easily accessible leads to overpopulation thus leading to overcrowding and congestion. Increase in population leads to increased housing development which may necessarily have not been planned for which may lead to poor waste management and inadequate provision of basic and social amenities .Increased investments may lead to resource over exploitation and depletion thus environmental degradation.  


·         The use of environmental impact assessment should be taken up more frequently before the beginning and during the progress of road development projects. It may be an expensive venture at the beginning but is an investment that bears fruit of community members and investors/ institutions along the developments as well as for the betterment of the entire community.

·         The use of forums that bring together government officials in charge of road constructions, contractors and the road users (investors and households) to iron out issues that may affect the relationships of the users and construction plans as well as highlight areas where all stakeholders should work together such a in wildlife conservation and enhancing the bio-diversity during and after road construction.

·         Policy development for use of road sections for business investments should be taken seriously as most areas are experiencing unplanned development of small businesses and investments.

·         There should be a workable partnership between the developers and planning authorities to make sure new developments do not pose any threat to neither the road users nor the environment.

·         There is need for government agencies responsible for road development to have discussions with developers before they even submit their plans so as to check whether they are in conformity with stipulated policies and regulations.

·         The Environmental Impact Assessment system should be improved to have up-to-date environmental information, which can best be provided through local experts drawn from different disciplines.

·         There should be improvement to drainage systems.

·         There should be effective monitoring of the environmental impacts such as the air quality and water resources standards and dissemination of the same information to the public to increase awareness.

·         The Local Authorities should have the power to refuse/accept development proposals/applications directly. The authorities must consult the Highway Authority. It is the Highway Authority’s role to give highway observations on whether a development will have a detrimental impact on traffic, road safety and the environment.

·         In the long term it is necessary to apply restrictions on new developments or expansion of existing ones to avoid any adverse effects on the environment and road users.


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Burnett, S. (2001). Forest roads: Benefits for wildlife management, fire suppression, and water quality. Water Resources IMPACT 3(3):5–7

Daigle, P. (2010). A summary of the environmental impacts of roads, management responses, and research gaps: A literature review. BC Journal of Ecosystems and Management 10(3):65–89.

Perkins, D, (2000). Project on Environmentally Sustainable Transport (EST), Policy Guidelines for EST. EAI, Paris.

Organization for Economic Corporation and Development [OECD], (2002). Impact of Transport Infrastructure Investment on Regional Development. OECD Publications. Paris.

Sengupta, R. (2010). Impact of highway on the Socio-economic well-being of rural households living in proximity. Contemporary Issues and Ideas in Social Sciences.

Todaro,M.P.(1981). „City Bias And Rural Neglect : The Dilemma Of Urban Development‟ (Population Council, 1981)

Weisbrod, G. and B. Weisbrod (1997). Assessing the Economic Impacts of Transportation Projects: How to Choose the Appropriate Technique for Your Project, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, Washington.

World Bank. (2011). Environmental Assessment Sourcebook. Volume III: Guidelines for Environmental Assessment of Energy and Industry Projects. Environment Department. Technical Paper No.154.

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