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The Expressways of Toronto (Built and Unbuilt)

1966 Plan

A diagram showing the 1966 expressway network and planned expansion

Article by Sean Marshall

At first, the topic of roads and expressways seems completely out of place on a website that is devoted to public transit. However, the construction of highways and expressways (and the non-construction of planned expressways) has been a tremendous influence on land use and public transportation in the Toronto area, so an examination of these successful and failed projects is very appropriate.

There have been roughly three stages of expressway construction in the Toronto area: the first, lasting from the 1930s to the early 1950s, saw the construction of inter-city provincial expressways which terminated well short of downtown Toronto. A second stage, lasting from the early 1950s to the 1970s, was a rapid growth of urban expressways, built by the province, and the new Metropolitan Toronto government with plans for many other expressways that died (thankfully!) on the drawing board in the 1960s and 1970s. The third stage, lasting from the mid 1970s to the present, is the construction of suburban and bypass freeways in Southern Ontario, primarily by the province. All but one of the Metropolitan Toronto expressway projects left either ghosts or scaled-down versions of the full plan.

The first expressways in the Toronto area were those of the intercity type, and were designed to relieve pressure on existing highways between large urban areas. The first of these was the Queen Elizabeth Way (named after the Queen Mother, not Queen Elizabeth the Second, the current monarch), which was officially opened in 1939. (Note: Robert M. Stamp in Bridging the Border describes that event as a "dedication", with the "official opening" from Toronto to Niagara Falls not taking place until August 1940.) The QEW did not actually enter Toronto, but stopped just short of the Humber River. Its other end was just short of the Niagara River in Niagara Falls, at the point where the Rainbow Bridge would be opened in 1941 to replace the old Honeymoon Bridge that had collapsed in 1938. The QEW's branch to its present terminus at Fort Erie did not open until 1956. The highway then had three endpoints until 1980 when, presumably because this had confused people, the original branch to Niagara Falls was renamed as highway 420.

The QEW has been described as North America's first freeway, but it had grade-level intersections at secondary roads, featured traffic circles at Clarkson, Stoney Creek and Niagara Falls and was subject to delays at lift bridges at Hamilton Beach and Homer (near St. Catharines). The highway also had an unprotected level crossing in Niagara Falls at the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Electric Railway, and the conductor on the NS&T interurbans had to flag traffic in order to cross the highway.

The new highways helped to kill off the remaining radial railways left in Ontario. The NS&T passenger railway was finally abandoned in 1959 between St. Catharines and Port Colborne, and the Lake Erie and Northern and the Grand River Railway combination between Port Dover and Waterloo stopped serving passengers in 1955 as work on the 401 was beginning in that area. The last interurban in Toronto, between Glen Echo loop and Richmond Hill, was closed in 1948, just as plans were finalized for the construction of Highway 400.

When the QEW was built, it had been designed not only by traffic engineers, but also sculptors and landscape architects. When the freeway was widened and upgraded in the 1950s, many of the original bridges and landscaping were removed. However, artifacts remain: The "Mile 0" monument was retained, and moved into a nearby park when the Gardiner was built in the 1950s. Original bridges remain in St. Catharines and at York Street in Hamilton (Hamilton was planned as the original terminus of the QEW) and original lighting is still in place with the monogram "ER" (standing for Queen Elizabeth in Latin) on the lamppost brackets at the Credit River Bridge in Mississauga and on part of the 420 in Niagara Falls.

The second freeway to be built in the Toronto area was Highway 2A, which ran from West Hill in Scarborough to Ritson Road in Oshawa, about 30 kilometres. (Today the section between Port Union Road and Ritson Road is now the 401, and this explains the short expressway stub in eastern Scarborough). This was completed in December 1947 as a full four lane expressway with proper interchanges.

The third freeway to be built was the Toronto-Barrie Highway, which ran northward from Wilson Avenue, between today's Jane Street and Weston Road. The expressway, finished in June 1952, terminated just beyond Barrie at Highway 93 (near where the 400 and 11 split today). It was built to reduce an increasing amount of traffic on Highways 11 and 27, and unlike the QEW, it was built entirely as a controlled-access highway, except for a grade-level railway crossing near Cookstown. The 400's early construction is still visible as the Ontario Coat of Arms is engraved in the concrete bridges that were built at the time.

This grade-level crossing over CN's Beeton Subdivision was not bridged because the traffic engineers believed that the new highway would render the rail line obsolete, and would be removed within a few years of the highway's opening, as was earlier done at the QEW/NS&T crossing. However, traffic levels on the 400 rose quickly, and the rail line persisted, so a bridge had to be built. However, by 1976, the rails were removed between the highway bridge and Beeton.

Up to the mid 1950s, no expressway was built in the City of Toronto proper, as all the expressways built (QEW, 2A and 400) terminated short of the city limits.

Metro's First Phase of Expressway Construction

In 1953 Metropolitan Toronto was incorporated by the Province of Ontario, as a new upper-tier government for the City of Toronto and 12 surrounding municipalities (Townships of York, East York, North York, Etobicoke, Scarborough; the towns of Weston, Leaside, Mimico and New Toronto and villages of Swansea, Long Branch and Forest Hill). The new entity was now responsible for many tasks, such as central planning, water and wastewater, the Toronto Transportation Commission and most arterial roads. The first chairman of Metro was a corporate lawyer and the former reeve of the village of Forest Hill, Frederick G. Gardiner, an appointee by his personal friend, Premier Leslie Frost.

Only three months after Metro was formed, the new council approved a new lakeshore highway in principle. The Lakeshore Expressway was built to connect the Queen Elizabeth Way (which terminated just west of the Humber River) to central Toronto, and allow traffic to "bypass" the central core, as most cross town traffic used Lakeshore Boulevard, Queen or Bloor Streets, which were severely congested.

The next year, Metro approved the construction of the western section from the Humber River to the current Jameson Avenue interchange. Construction began on the elevated section between Dufferin Street and the Don Valley Parkway in 1960.

Canada's first urban expressway was hyped by the Toronto press. A quote from the May 3, 1954 Toronto Telegram provides an excellent example:

"How would you like to drive through Toronto during rush-hour at 50 miles an hour?... you would have no stoplights to contend with, no billboards to... fray your temper. In addition, you would have a beautiful view of the lake through most of the ten-mile trip, with miles of six-lane, gently curving landscaped highway....

With the construction of the new Lakeshore Expressway, the Queensway was extended from the Humber River to Sunnyside, which compensated for the disconnection between the Queen/Roncesvalles intersection and Lakeshore Boulevard. A new median streetcar right of way was built with the construction of the Queensway. Before its opening, the Lakeshore Expressway was named the Frederick G. Gardiner expressway in honour of the first chairman of Metropolitan Toronto. To this day, it is referred to as 'the Gardiner' for short.

The second highway which was built by Metro Toronto was the Don Valley Parkway, which paralleled the Don River from Keating Street (connecting with the new Lakeshore expressway) to Don Mills Road, then using the Woodbine Avenue alignment northward to the Toronto bypass, which was under construction at the time.

Public opposition to the DVP and the Gardiner was limited. Both expressways were built without dividing neighbourhoods and followed natural corridors. The only major demolition that took place was in south Parkdale, where a number of houses were demolished to make room for the Jameson interchange, and in the Corktown area, south of Cabbagetown, where a large number of buildings were destroyed for the Adelaide and Richmond Street approaches to the DVP.

Meanwhile the "Toronto Bypass" was being constructed north of the city. It was first built between Weston Road and Bayview Avenue, then west to Highway 27 (which was now a four-lane expressway to the QEW and later renumbered the 427) and east to Highway 2A. By 1957, the expressway was open between Highway 35 in Bowmanville and Highway 27, between Woodstock and London and Windsor and Tilbury. However, the 401 was not completed from Windsor to the Quebec border until 1973. The 401 was given the official name of the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway, for the two leaders of the Federal Conservative party at the time of Confederation, John A. Macdonald and Georges E. Cartier.

Spadina at Eglinton

(Above) The interchange between the Spadina Expressway and Eglinton Avenue -- very different from what exists today. (Below) The interchange at Bathurst Street. A ravine runs through it.

Spadina at Bathurst Spadina at Davenport

(Above) The interchange at Spadina and Davenport, next to Casa Loma. (Below) The Spadina "Depressway" at Harbord, ripping a hole in the Lower Annex.

Spadina at Harbord Full Spadina Plan

(Above) Full Spadina Plan.

The Second Phase of Metro's Expressway Plan

While the construction of the DVP and Gardiner Expressway was proceeding, traffic planners were designing further highways to criss-cross Metro Toronto. The 1966 Metro expressway plan showed new highways such as the 403, 404 and the 407 in the suburbs, and five new expressways in Metro Toronto: the Spadina, the Crosstown, the Scarborough, the Hamilton and the 400 Extension/Christie-Clinton Expressways. (The 1966 plan also showed a Queen Subway running between Roncesvalles and Pape/Danforth)

The best known of this second batch of highways, of which most were never built, is the Spadina Expressway. The Spadina Expressway was to connect central Toronto with the rapidly growing suburbs in the northwest, as the DVP connected with the northeast. Almost from the beginning, the Spadina Expressway was to come with a subway line running through the middle of it.

According to a Metro report published in 1970, the expressway was to run from the Wilson Heights area to Harbord Street near the University of Toronto. It would have run south from Wilson Heights Road to Eglinton between Bathurst and Dufferin in a depressed trench. South of Eglinton, it would follow the Cedarvale Ravine, tunnelling through part of it. An interchange would have been built with Bathurst St with southbound-to-southbound and northbound-to-northbound ramps only. South of the Bathurst interchange, the Spadina Expressway would have been buried underneath St. Michael's College with a partial interchange with St. Clair Avenue. South of St. Clair, the alignment would have continued in the ravine to Spadina Road. It would have made an interchange at Spadina Road, connecting the freeway with St. Clair Avenue. The expressway, the rapid transit line, Spadina Road and off-ramps to Davenport Road would have been placed in a four-story tunnel down the steep grade to Davenport Road next to Casa Loma. Davenport Road would have been rebuilt between the expressway and Avenue Road to handle the increased traffic to the expressway.

South of Davenport Road, the freeway would have crossed the CPR North Toronto subdivision, and connect with Dupont Street. It would then have ploughed through the Annex neighbourhood, wiping out most of the houses on Spadina Road. Spadina Road would have been split into northbound and southbound sections, divided by a trenched Spadina Expressway. Ramps near Lowther Avenue would have allowed traffic from the north to have access to Bloor Street. The freeway would have continued south of Bloor via the Spadina Avenue alignment, with access roads on both sides to Harbord, where another interchange ramp would have been built. The freeway would end, feeding into a rebuilt Spadina Avenue at Wilcocks, just north of Knox College (which would have been demolished to allow for rapid access to the expressway).

The Spadina subway line would be built in the middle of the expressway, with stations at generally the same locations as today's line. However, Dupont station would be built slightly to the west of its present location and there would be no Spadina station on the Spadina line. A bus loop at Dupont, connecting the Spadina service roads, would have allowed Route 77 Spadina buses to turn around and connect with the new subway line.

The 1970 report was also interesting because of the many road reconstructions that would have been made necessary due to the construction of the expressway. In the maps, St. Clair Avenue has no streetcar tracks, and connections to the subway from surface buses would be made at curbside as it is at Glencairn Station. Spadina Avenue would be rebuilt with an island and left turning lanes from the southern terminus of the expresssway to the Gardiner, which would have eliminated any chance of putting in a streetcar service. As well, Eglinton West station would have been a simple single-platform, open air station with a single bus loop and no transferless connections. Obviously, the example of St. Clair West showed that the planners were expecting the abandonment of Toronto's streetcar network by the time the freeway was to be completed.

Perhaps because of the controversy the Spadina Expressway caused, the name of it was changed sometime between 1966 and 1970 to the William R. Allen Expressway, named for the second chairman of Metro Toronto. Later, it was changed again, to William R. Allen Road.

The Crosstown Expressway was to connect the Don Valley Parkway and the Spadina Expressway to Mount Dennis (the area around the present day Black Creek Drive/Weston Road intersection), where it was to connect to two other freeways: the Hamilton Expressway and the Highway 400 Extension. The Crosstown would have run roughly parallel to Davenport Road and the CP North Toronto subdivision. The expressway would have connected with the Don Valley Parkway just north of the Prince Edward Viaduct, be built through the Rosedale Ravine, run northwest to the CP line, and run along the north side of the railway to the vicinity of Lansdowne Avenue, then run northwest again to the CN Weston sub/CP MacTier sub to north of Rogers Road, then use the existing Black Creek Drive alignment to the 400.

In fact, the elongated connecting interchange between the DVP, Bayview Avenue and Bloor Street is the only section of the Crosstown alignment built. The ramp to Bloor Street was to be a four-lane expressway running up the Belt Line Ravine.

Another expressway was also planned to connect the Gardiner and the Crosstown, west of Spadina Avenue. Known as the Clinton-Christie expressway or as a part of the 400 extension, it was to have paralleled Christie and Grace Streets, running between Grace and Clinton Streets crossing through inner city neighbourhoods, and cutting the Italian and Portugese communities along Dundas and College in half. Interchanges were to have been built at Bloor, College and Queen and would have connected to the Gardiner just west of Fort York.

The Scarborough Expressway was intended to link to the eastern spur of the Gardiner (which was demolished in 2000-1) at Leslie Street to the terminus of Highway 2A in West Hill. It was to cut though many east end Toronto neighbourhoods. From Leslie, it would have run along the Lakeshore to Greenwood Racetrack, then swung north to just north of Kingston Road. From there, it would have run just above Kingston Road, paralleling the CN Kingston Subdivision for a distance, then meeting up with Highway 2A near Highland Creek.

A later study of the Scarborough Expressway (1974) proposed an alternative preferred alignment running along the CN Kingston sub all the way past Carlaw, then running through the former Consumers Gas property southeast of the Broadview/Eastern Avenue intersections, with interchanges at the Gardiner, Eastern Avenue, Greenwood Avenue and Victoria Park. This would have reduced the number of homes that would have to be demolished.

The Hamilton Expressway (also known as the Richview Expressway) was to have run from the Mount Dennis area (where it would connect to the Crosstown/400 Extension) westward to the junction of Highways 401 and 27. From there, it would be built by the provincial government to Hamilton. The Metro government began land assembly for the project along Richview Side Road (later Eglinton Avenue). The Ministry of Transportation, when upgrading the 401/427 interchange in the 1970s, designed the interchange to connect with the new freeway. This is why today there is a very wide right of way for Eglinton Avenue in Etobicoke and an elaborate connection from the 401 and 427 to Eglinton Avenue, as those were the ramps for the Hamilton Freeway.

As work commenced on the less controversial Lawrence to Sheppard section of the Spadina Expressway through the late 1960s, the plans for the Crosstown and Christie-Clinton expressways were abandoned. Metro Toronto's expressway plan was facing growing criticism from city residents upset with the possible impact upon their neighbourhoods. Political efforts in 1970 concentrated on getting the approval to construct the Spadina and Scarborough expressways. On February 17, 1971 the Ontario Municipal Board ruled that construction on the expressway should proceed, despite strong opposition from citizens. The citizen's committee than appealed to the provincial cabinet. For its part, Metro did no work on the expressway while the matter was before the OMB.

On June 3, 1971 cabinet overruled the OMB, effectively killing the Spadina Expressway . The new Premier of Ontario, William Davis made this well known statement in the legislature: "If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve the people, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to stop." This was seen as a startling turnaround on the part of Bill Davis, nicknamed "Brampton Billy Davis" for living in that suburban community and commissioning Highway 410 to serve it.

After Spadina

During the mid to late 1970s, the provincial government attempted to limit Toronto's growth with the Toronto-Centred Plan, creating two tiers of urban growth separated by a wide "parkway belt" that stretched between Brampton and Mississauga to Durham region and the encouragement of intensification of Metro Toronto. Reality set in, however and by the 1990s the "parkway belt" was only wide enough for a hydro corridor and a toll expressway.

Meanwhile, the 400 Extension, built to Jane Street as a freeway, was extended to Weston Road and Alliance Avenue (near where the Crosstown and the Hamilton Highway were to meet) as a four lane undivided highway south of Lawrence Avenue known as Black Creek Road. The Allen Expressway (now known as Allen Road) was extended to Eglinton via the ramps planned for the interchange. This intersection quickly became notorious for its backups caused by waits at the traffic signal (sometimes extending all the way to Lawrence). The extension did serve to remove the heavy load on Lawrence and its surrounding streets by transferring it onto Eglinton and its surrounding streets. Meanwhile, work continued on the rapid transit component of the Spadina plan and, in January 1978, subway trains on the Spadina line began speeding by the long line of cars.

While the construction of new highways all but ceased in Metro Toronto, the provincial government continued to build and widen highways in the suburbs. During the 1960s, the 401 was widened between Markham Road and Islington Avenue from four lanes to twelve lanes using a collector/express system of ramps and roadways, copied from the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago. A wide right of way of 300 feet allowed for the highway to be expanded with little expropriation or demolition. Today the 401 through Toronto rivals the Santa Monica Expressway in Los Angeles as North America's busiest.

The province built Highway 404 north from the 401 and Don Valley Parkway, in about 1980, first to Major Mackenzie, then to Davis Drive in Newmarket. This was to reduce congestion on the 400, which had been widened to six lanes in the early seventies.

The Province's portion of the Hamilton Highway was built from the QEW in Oakville to the 401 in north Mississauga, and numbered it the 403 (which was also the number of the Chedoke Expressway in Hamilton, built in the early 1960s). It was intended that the two 403s would be linked by an extension through Oakville and Burlington, but this was never finished until 2001, and then as an extension of the private toll highway 407.

In 1986 the 410 was built from Highway 7 West in Brampton to the 401, as an upgrade of a two lane road. However, it took several years before motorists on the 410 could go west on the 401, or south to the 403.

Only two more expressways were built in the Toronto area after the 410, both controversial. The 407, a toll highway, was opened in 1998 between the 410 and 404 through the "parkway belt". The NDP government of the early 1990s wanted to have the highway be a toll road to pay for its construction, using new technology that would eliminate the use of toll booths by billing car owners monthly based on license plate photos or transponder signals.

When the Harris Conservatives took power in 1995, construction of the highway was accelerated and in 1999, the highway was leased to a private consortium for a term of 99 years. When the highway was first opened, drivers were given a "free ride" for over six months, a more extended period than expected because of technical problems. There was some difficulty in photographing cars and scanning their license numbers.

There were several issues that caused controversy. The terms of the lease were kept secret from the public. As well, the tolls are among the highest in North America, and they were not revealed to drivers as they entered the highway. As well, when GO Transit began service on the 407 to serve York University, it was not even given a discount even though it operated at first 18 trips a day, with multiple entrances and exits on and off the highway. (The 407 service became so successful that more buses were added, and a new route to Scarborough Centre was added.)

However, by 2001, extensions were opened to Brock Road in northern Pickering and to the QEW/403 interchange in Burlington. With the extensions, tolls became 11.5 cents a kilometre, all day, every day and higher for trucks and buses.

The other highway that was opened in the Golden Horseshoe was the Lincoln Alexander Expressway in Hamilton, named after the former Conservative MP and Lieutenant-Governor. It is controversial because of a proposed extension to the QEW through the Red Creek Ravine in East Hamilton, an environmentally sensitive area. The fight over the Red Hill Creek is still continuing.

The future

The 407 is still under construction in north Durham, and just opened to Brock Road in Pickering, near the Pickering airport lands. It is to be built to the 35/115 north of Orono. The 404 is being built north of Davis Drive to Green Lane. Eventually it is proposed to extend to Highway 48 near Beaverton. The 410 is to be extended to Highway 10 north of Mayfield Road. The 427 is also to be extended farther north, possibly as far as Bradford. There is also speculation that a new 400 series highway will be built to Collingwood either as a branch of the 400 or as an extension of the 427.

In early 2001, the provincial Conservative government unveiled its highway construction plan for the Golden Horseshoe. It shows an expressway connecting the Lincoln Alexander with the QEW near Fort Erie passing through Welland. Another expressway would run north of the 407 creating a new "Highway 413" running through the Oak Ridges Moraine area.

In late 2001, Toronto City Council killed a motion by councillor Paul Sutherland that would increase the number of lanes on the Don Valley Parkway, and have the construction paid for through tolls. This was seen by some observers, such as former mayor John Sewell, as a return to the Spadina Expressway conflict.

Much uncertainty still exists around the plans for the Gardiner. There are several reports that conflict. The Fung report calls for a tunnelled Gardiner between the Exhibition and Spadina Avenue, and a grade level boulevard to Parliament Street. Other plans call for the tunnel to extend through to the Don Valley Parkway. However, most planners agree that the Gardiner, it its present form, should be eliminated from the Central Waterfront area.


According to the urban philosopher Jane Jacobs, there are several reasons why Toronto does not have as many expressways as American cities (or even Montreal). One reason is because the Federal Government has not been active in building highways or funding their construction (with the exception of the Trans-Canada Highway). In the United States, the 1956 Interstate Highway Act provided federal funding for the construction and maintenance of interurban expressways. A second reason is because Canada lags behind the United States by about ten years so urban renewal and highway construction occured later in Canada and stopped earlier, as lessons were learned about the American experience.

In my opinion, if the Spadina, Scarborough and Crosstown highways were built, it would have undermined the Toronto Transit Commission and GO Transit. By refraining from extensive highway development, public transit in Toronto was allowed to fluorish. The automobile was not made as viable an option, at least during rush-hour, because of the congestion on Toronto's roads and the lack of parking in the downtown core. As a result, Toronto's inner city was kept vibrant and not given over wholly to road and parking space. Toronto's downtown remains a people place.


  • Bessert, Christopher J., Ontario Highways Website.
  • Caulfield, Jon, City Form and Everyday Life Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994
  • City of Toronto Planning Board, Scarborough Expressway Impact Study January, 1974
  • Donegan, Rosemary and Rick Salutin, Spadina Avenue Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1985
  • Fulford, Robert, Accidental City Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter and Ross, 1995
  • McIlwraith, Thomas F., Looking for Old Ontario Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
  • Metropolitan Toronto Roads and Traffic Department, Functional Design Report South from Eglinton Avenue February 1970
  • Metropolitan Toronto Planning Department, Transportation Alternatives: A Summary Not Dated (1975?)
  • Mills, John M., A History of the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Toronto: UCRS/OHERA, 1967.
  • Sewell, John, The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Urban Planning Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Thanks to Mark Brader for his suggestions and corrections to this article.

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