It’s only when viewed from an airplane as it takes off that you gain real insight into the nature of Highway 401, the widest and busiest highway in North America. From the air, it looks more like North America’s busiest parking lot. Looking out the window of my flight to Denver at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, it’s clear that not only is the 401 clogged, the 410 and the 427 are too. I’m sure the 404 is bumper-to-bumper, though it’s not on our flight path.
It’s an illuminating perspective, as I’ve spent the previous three days on the ground driving some of the 400-series highways, more than a dozen superhighways which comprise the spine of Ontario’s highway system. All 400-series highways are divided roadways, and all but one is at least four lanes wide. At parts through Toronto, the 401 is 18 lanes wide, with nine running in each direction.
Boredom is the defining characteristic of these highways. Driving them is like riding a rollercoaster that guarantees to simultaneously bore and terrify its riders. There are long stretches stuck in standstill traffic, during which you begin to wonder if you have unknowingly died and are now trapped in limbo. When moving, you travel a straight line banked by bland landscape.
This boredom is punctuated by moments of sudden fear. You must be on constant alert. Driving on these highways you witness moves so death-defying they would have frightened daredevil Evel Knievel. I’ve driven all makes and models: cube vans, van vans, Volkswagen Rabbits, Toyota Camrys, Dodge Spirits, Volkswagen Jettas, minivans and a 2019 BMW Alpina B7 Exclusive Edition. I’ve seen bloody accidents, cars flipping, winter-tire-less sports cars speeding through snowstorms, semis ablaze and countless close calls.
Earlier this week, I set out on a three-day circuit - Toronto to Montreal, Montreal to Ottawa and then Ottawa to Toronto. Normally, I’d take the train to Montreal if I’m going for business, but I had a kid to pick up from residence, and another set of obligations in Ottawa. So, the 400-series beckoned.
Toronto to Montreal: Clear skies illuminate the boredom. Orange cones proliferate. Driving on the 401 involves overtaking cars that later overtake you. Then you overtake them again. I pass the same Jeep six times and see him pass me just as many.
In Brockville, Ont. it begins to pour. Highway 401 in a downpour is not fun but at least the stress alleviates the boredom. Tractor-trailers roll by, drowning the windshield. Visibility is poor. It continues to rain once we cross into Quebec and the 401 becomes Highway 20. I know I’m nearing Montreal when I encounter the potholes. The roads are pocked and the car shakes and bakes. It seems as if every street is one-way. The best part of any trip from Toronto to Montreal is that it ends in Montreal and dinner at one of my favourite restaurants, Les Oiseaux.
Montreal to Ottawa: I picked up two dozen bagels and was off. More rain and more dull landscape. On the 417 there are drivers who speed and those who drive dangerously slowly. Highway 417 runs straight from Montreal to Ottawa and it is a tract that I traversed many times while growing up in Ottawa. In the 1980s, the best way to have fun in Ottawa was to drive to Montreal, which meant returning home on the 417 at dawn. Making the trip on a rain-soaked Monday morning doesn’t have the same romantic flair.
Ottawa to Toronto: Highway 416 connects Ottawa to the 401, which is kind of like saying, “the River Styx connects the earth to hell.” The engineers who designed it must have been determined to “out-bore” the 401. Imagine if A. Y. Jackson painted a landscape exclusively in shades of grey while hungover. That’s Highway 416. So, I opt for my old-stand-by – Highway 7 to Highway 37 and then the 401. The lost highway is an old run-down roadway littered with broken dreams and bygone days. What better way to get to Highway 401, a route that is littered with litter. It’s madness in all lanes from Belleville to Toronto.
The Future: The Ford government is promising to add Highway 413 to the 400-series menu. It will be a ring-road that will allow drivers to circumvent the Greater Toronto Area. The 413 will be four to six lanes that will rip through farms, forests and wetlands. There is significant opposition to the plan. Advocacy group Environmental Defense maintains, “Highway 413 would be 59 kilometres long and would pave over 400 acres of the Greenbelt and over 2,000 acres of Class 1 and Class 2 farmland – among Ontario’s most productive farmland.”
The name alone seems problematic. In China, the number four is considered bad luck, because it sounds like the Mandarin word for “death” - buildings in China often don’t have fourth floors. In western cultures the number 13 is considered unlucky. The Norse god Loki was the thirteenth dinner guest at the feast of Valhalla, where he tricked another guest into killing then-god Baldur. In Christianity, Judas Iscariot was the thirteenth guest at the last supper. He betrayed Jesus and set into motion Jesus’s arrest, trial, death by crucifixion and resurrection. Eighty per cent of high-rise buildings in the United States do not have a thirteenth floor. Highway 413 manages to petrify superstitious people from different cultures. Seems like a bad omen.
Why not name it Highway 408? Or Highway 888? Or Lucky Highway 877?
If the conservatives go through with it, they should go all the way and dub Highway 413 the “Death Loki Judas Way.”
The lasting lesson I take from the sky-high view on the way to Denver is it comes to 400-series highways, the best way to avoid traffic is to fly.