Southern Ontario’s main corridor from the Detroit-Windsor border in the west to Quebec in the east is Highway 401, more commonly known as simply The Four-Oh-One. This 897 km stretch of concrete has the honor of being North America’s busiest highway by traffic volume. It is also one of the widest in the world and as it passes through Toronto it becomes the third most congested highway in the world!
Highway 401 is officially called the MacDonald-Cartier Expressway (although nobody calls it that). It is also referred to as “The King’s Highway” and “The Corridor”. The highway is maintained by the Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO) at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars per year. This cost is well-justified, however, for the amount of economic activity the Four-Oh-One creates in the province.
More than a billion dollars a day in trade travels between the US and Canada, making it the world’s largest trading partnership. More than half of those goods and services reach their markets along Highway 401. Whether coming from Detroit and going to Toronto, or moving from Montreal and heading to Chicago, Highway 401 is the main route for transport trucks and service vehicles in this massive trade complex. This makes the highway one of the most valuable infrastructure projects in the country, but also gives it the dubious distinction of being one of the most heavily-traveled highways in the world.
In 2011 an independent assessment confirmed that the highway saw an average of 500,000 vehicles per day; more than the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles! The highway is also home to the busiest transport truck traffic in the world, with an average of 10,000 transport trucks driving along it on any given day. As the highway passes through Toronto, with 5.5 million inhabitants, it features the busiest multi-structure bridge in the world which include four overpasses and several off-ramps that carry an average of 375,000 vehicles per day.
The 401 began as a Toronto bypass in 1952, although in eastern Ontario there was a highway 401 near Gananoque that ran to the Quebec border. In the late fifties the Province began construction of a single multi-lane highway to join the two and by 1962 the entire highway, from Windsor to Quebec, was named Highway 401. Ontario has gone on to create an entire “400 Series” class of highway, basically big, heavily-travelled multi-lane expressways that are all named four-hundred-and-something (such as the 427 and 404). The 401 was the first.
Most of the highway is three lanes wide, although near busier metropolitan areas such as Windsor, Toronto and Kingston the highway expands to four and in some cases eight lanes. The highway around Toronto, from the suburbs of Mississauga to Scarborough, are up to ten lanes wide, making this stretch the widest highway in the world!
With so much traffic on the highway and the wild windy weather of Southern Ontario playing havoc sometimes, it is small wonder that Highway 401 is also home to some of the worst traffic accidents in North America. The section of road between Windsor and London is, due to its geographic location, the site of massive rolling fog banks and sudden downpours and white-out blizzards in the winter. As a result this section of highway is nicknamed “Carnage Alley”. There are roughly 80 deaths per year on the 401, with more than 50 of them on this stretch of highway. In 1999 the worst traffic accident in Canadian history occurred in Carnage Alley when a fog bank rolled in off Lake Erie and caused an 87-car pileup that killed 8 people and sent 47 to hospital.
This stretch of highway was widened and concrete retaining walls were added to the shoulders, additions that have reduced the number of traffic fatalities, but this stretch is still home to a high number of vehicle collisions every year.
Highway 401 has been one of the major parts of Ontario living for half a century, and it has grown from a two-lane bypass to one of the busiest and biggest highways in the world. With plans to tie more highways into it, particular near the Windsor-Detroit crossing, the highway will continue to grow. As a growing population in Ontario presents new challenges to government and planners, new technologies and planning methods will emerge to help deal with it.
The Four-Oh-One is one of Canada’s great highways, and will continue to serve the southern Ontario corridor for years to come!