Ontarians and any other Canadians travelling across the country’s most-populous province have a hate-hate relationship with Highway 401.
There was such promise, back in the 1950s and 1960s when Highway 401 was built: it was intended as a bypass, going around populated areas instead of through them. The “super highway” promised to speed up city-to-city travel and provide safe, wide roads with a higher speed limit to move along trucks and business traffic. Highway 401 stretches more than 500 miles from Windsor, ON in the south, curving north and east around Lake Ontario and extending to the Quebec border, where it connects with Québec Autoroute 20 that runs east to Quebec City.
As a kid, Highway 401 led from my home in Waterloo County south to either London or Windsor, where we had relatives to visit. I looked forward to the road trips because we usually stopped for a meal break at one of the identical, stone-walled restaurants set up as service centres along the route. Awaiting were treats I’d never have at home: an open-faced turkey or beef sandwich (white bread and meat slices doused in salty gravy) with peas and French Fries. Maybe even a chocolate milk.
Once my compass turned Toronto-ward via high-school bus trips, my first visual cue that Toronto was ahead was the big Schneiders’ “Dutch Girl” sign, with time displayed above it, just after you merged eastward onto the 401 from Guelph.
Erb Group – Erb Transport when I was a kid – was a big presence in the Waterloo County, and remains so, headquartered in New Hamburg and billing itself as the “North America’s Leading Refrigerated Transport Service” with 1,500 employees after starting with one man, Vernon Erb, and his truck in 1959.
The Erb trucks have plenty of company on today’s 401 which, as it runs through Toronto, has an average annual daily traffic measure that can exceed 500,000 vehicles, making it the busiest road in all of North America. More than half of Canadians live along the “four-oh-one”, as it’s usually called. Or, often around Toronto, the “401 Parking Lot.”
The province keeps coming up with expansions and incentives to ease the logjam: a paid toll route, Hwy 407, arches north of Hwy. 401 and is supposed to provide a speedier route for people to get east to west around Toronto, and to travel between these northern suburb communities and the downtown city. The first part opened in 1997, followed by an extension completed in 2001. The province has recently opened another eastern extension of Hwy. 407 in 2016 that is being built in four phases, set for completion in 2019.
Other suggestions are floated, sometimes tried: ban cars with fewer than two people (or give those cars access to their own express lane); forbid tractor-trailers from being on the road during morning and evening commuting rush hours (that never went anywhere); add more lanes (done where budgets allow); improve public transit feeding into Toronto from east to west to get more commuters off the road (happening slowly, but not so far making a difference in 401 volume).
When you approach Toronto from the west, driving on the 401 east-bound lanes, it’s almost a certainty you will hit stop-and-start traffic once you reach Milton, Ontario, about 30 miles from Toronto. On most days, you crawl from there past Mississauga, Pearson International Airport, additional traffic pile-ons (and offs) at the south-to-north Highways 427 and 400, and only then are you travelling east-west across Toronto proper. It’s not a whole lot better approaching from the east, travelling westbound. I think of the main part of Toronto as being the hole in a doughnut cut in half, across-ways: you can travel within that hole on public transit but to get across the doughnut, to travel elsewhere in the province, you have to slog through the 401.
For many years I lived in Stratford, ON, and the trip from Stratford to downtown Toronto should be two hours of driving, even allowing for a bit of slowing down. I’ve made it in less, going the speed limits, driving late at night after an event when the 401 is relatively quiet. But if you have a time-sensitive event to get to in either direction and you’re travelling at a time other than 1 a.m., you better leave three hours, or more, to make that particular trip.
The delays are bad enough but the tempers are worse. People get frustrated with the slowdowns and the level of driver rudeness can fly off the scale. Signalling lane changes? Taking turns to merge in the proper zipper technique? Leaving space between vehicles? In your dreams: Torontonians at the wheel on the 401 make New Yorkers look like charm school instructors.
I don’t have a solution, short of arranging my life to not drive on the 401, but it is pretty difficult to avoid; and modern commerce could not have thrived with the patchwork of two-lane highways that used to connect cities in Ontario in the first part of the 20th century.
Until we get this mess sorted out, my advice is: take transit when you can; travel in off-peak hours; and remember if you are travelling west away from Toronto and you see the Schneiders Dutch Girl, the worst is now behind you.
Main photo (taken on a Sunday afternoon, which is why you can actually see pavement): Kelley Teahen