Thoughts about Toronto’s Hwy 401 Traffic Problem

It’s an understatement that Toronto has some insane traffic. I got my latest taste of it this Sunday when I was stuck in traffic on the 401 highway while trying to get from Toronto back to Waterloo after visiting my parents. It amazes me that traffic is bad enough that it is terrible on a Sunday. Below, I go through several observations about why I think traffic is bad and offer a few pointers on how to fix it. I know this problem is far more complex than what I have listed below and involves a wide variety of factors including weather, demographics, psychology  economics, etc. I have simplified and abstracted away a bunch of things in this post so it does not turn into a novel.

8 Lanes each way don’t help

Any time I pick up relatives, who are visiting, from the airport and we merge onto the 401, they always comment on how absolutely massive size of the 401. They are right. It is 8 lanes wide in one direction, which means a total of 16 lanes both ways. That is a huge amount of lanes and I have yet to see it in any other city I have visited, except for Chicago. Despite the many lanes, traffic still slows to a crawl even on weekends. Mississauga, to the west of Toronto, is undertaking construction to go from 4 lanes in one direction to 8 lanes for their stretch of the 401. They are doing this in an attempt to battle congestion. If the rest of the 401 in the Greater Toronto Area is any indication, this is not going to help.

Some parts have a backwards design that needs fixing

By backwards design, I am mainly looking at locations like the eastbound stretch of the 401 starting from the 404 off-ramp to the Kennedy Road. If you get off the 404, onto the 401 and merge all the way into the left-most lane (about 3 lanes over), then about 2 exits later at the Kennedy road exit, your left lane is now the right-most lane. This occurs when you stick to the lane and never change lanes. Basically over the course of 2 exits, the two right lanes have peeled off and exited. At the same time, new lanes on the left hand side are opened up. This is a huge problem. Now, over the span of approximately 3 kilometres, the traffic needs to shift two lanes to the left just to stay on the 401. You know what happens when everyone tries to frantically switch lanes? Chaos, cars braking and traffic jams. It amazes me that no one has even thought of attempting to remedy this situation. It would go a long way to alleviating congestion because eastbound on the 401 at Kennedy Road is always guaranteed to be moving at a crawl whenever there is medium to heavy traffic.

Not Fast Enough Public Transit

The main reason that many people drive in Toronto during rush hour is due to the fact that it is still faster to drive to a location than take public transit there, even if you have to drive through rush hour traffic. Case in point? When I used to do co-op in Toronto, I travelled from my parent’s home in Scarborough to around Dufferin Road and Eglinton Ave. If I took public transit, this commute took about 1.5 hours of time. If I drove in rush hour to the same location, it took 45 minutes. So, public transit is about 2x slower than driving in rush hour transit despite the fact that half of my public transit time is spent on the subway. The fact that public transit is significantly slower than driving means that Toronto’s public transit is simply not fast enough to entice people to ditch their cars and take the bus/train to work. I am confused as to why there are no such things as express trains or buses from the suburbs to downtown or to other suburban centres. Such express routes, especially trains, which don’t have to deal with the same levels of traffic, would make commutes shorter and entice people to ditch their cars.

Not Enough Alternates to the 401

There are practically no alternate routes to the 401 that will take you across Toronto in an east-west direction. There is the QEW and the Gardiner Expressway, but they go through the downtown core and are more jammed than the 401. There is also the 407 ETR, which is not as congested and runs more north of the city. There is only one problem with the 407 ETR: it’s a toll road. The toll rates aren’t even close to reasonable. I have taken many toll routes through the USA and almost all of the rates there have been reasonable, but the 407’s rates are not reasonable at all. Of course that means that not as many people use it and everyone piles onto the 401, which means the 401 has traffic jams. Would making the 407 free help? Maybe. Recently, it seems like even the 407 is getting heavy traffic. The traffic is not heavy enough to cause major slowdowns, but it seems that even if we make it free, it will do little to address the problems of the 401.

A Strong Car Culture

Despite Toronto having a reasonable transit system (even if it is not as fast as I want it to be), I think Toronto still has a very strong car culture. Almost every family I know has at least one vehicle. About a third of my relatives and friends have two or more vehicles sitting on their driveways. If people can afford it, they will buy a car and drive that to places instead of taking the bus. The reason? Most of Toronto’s residents live in the suburbs and things are spaced pretty far apart. Which means it is a pain to get anywhere on public transit unless you live near or on a major road that has frequent bus service. Subway coverage is not as extensive as other cities like London, UK, which means that most of the time, you take the bus to your destination. On most routes, buses take about 15-20 mins to arrive. So naturally, people prefer to drive than take public transit because it is much easier and saves time. Getting people out of this car culture is probably the only way to significantly reduce the congestion of the 401 and other roads in Toronto. The problem? This is a very hard and uphill battle to fight. It is not something that can be overcome in a few months of a year, one would have to do this over several years.

So what’s the solution here? I think it needs to be a combination of faster public transit (including express trains), more alternative routes (like a toll-free 407), and re-doing parts of the 401 so that traffic does not need to shift lanes in order to stay on the 401. These need to be done in parallel with pushing out the strong car culture of Toronto and getting residents to embrace public transit more.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts about Toronto’s Hwy 401 Traffic Problem

  1. Steve

    The 401 is an insane and very dangerous highway – I should say the idiots that drive it make it unsafe –
    To fix the problem-
    1)get the transports off the road – they have a really l corridor that they can piggy back their loads –
    2) Relegate the transport to the driving lane Curb lane ) only – they would be allowed to pass slower trucks but must get back in AS SOON AS POSSIBLE-
    3)Stop tailgating period — anyone tailgating should get an automatic $1000 fine and three demerits – this is a VERY dangerous practice and it is why we have these multi car accidents
    4)Start charging these lane surfers going ridiculous speeds – cutting in and out of traffic – they should be suspended – given a 1500 fine – towed off the highway and the plated removed from the vehicle for 30 days — double that if they get caught again.
    5) ENFORCE THESPOPED LIMIT- people have the idea that speed limits do not apply to them and they can go as fast as they want – and the majority of drivers speed – WHY – the OPP is sterile – I have heard that the OPP says it is ok to break the speed limit just as long as you stay under 120 — SINCE WHEN DO THEY MAKE THE LAW – they are there to enforce it (But they are nowhere to be found.
    6) the speed limit was maintained the highway would be automatically safer – in addition it would help smooth the flow and stop this idiots from speeding and “bunching up”
    &) increase fines SUBSATNTIALLY – now you see sign showing fines staring at 120 KPH???? this is giving the idea it is OK to go 120 (want proof just go for a drive) If they are going to post signs — I suggest 105 to 110 – $50 and court costs – 110 – 115 – $300 plus court costs 115 -120 – $800 and costs – 120 to 130 – 3000- vehicle plates confiscated until fine paid – mandatory driver safety training course to be successfully completed with 6 months-and mandatory notification to the insurance company – burden of proof on the driver- Anything over 130 KPH — vehicle impounded minimum 30 days, 10,000 fine, mandatory insurance company notification- completion of driver safety source with 6 months – if caught again vehicle seizure and vehicle sold at public auction. 20,000 fine – driver suspended for 2 years.

    People have no right to speed, drive erratically or tailgate — Why – THEY CAUSE ACCIDEENTS THAT KILL PEOPLE – Driving is not a right – it is a privilege.

    The OPP are doing a LOUSY job but the will catch you pretty quick if you do not have plates exposed on the 407.

    This police force is sterile — what they need to do is start a HIGHWAY patrol – strictly enforcing traffic laws – Then the OPP can go back to whatever the hell they are not doing – Yes I am pissed off the OPP – why – because they have the responsibility to protect us and enforce the law and they are not doing it.

    They also have to promote getting one person cars off the highway — if everyone shared a ride with someone that would cut the traffic down by at least 40%

    I just got off the 401 LAST night – and it was a nightmare — thousands of trucks on the road all trying to pass each other – tailgating, speeding through construction zones – mix that up with these idiots that drive like they own the highway and you have a recipe for disaster.

  2. douglas jordan c.d.

    well to do families (MASONS) can buy a $100.00 a month police job or crown attorney female. there donations to the masons ensure a comfort placement of off springs for there future (I checked a female’s back ground and she was a ballet dancer.) at a recent assault with a car she called me over asked for my licence and issued a unsafe turn with out even getting out of her cruiser,,,, The insurance obtained an investigator and the ticket was withdrawn . her attitude with me to a lowly old man reflected her comfortable up bringing of a money mason. financial support to mason’s ensures the comfortable high pay for their off springs. The crown attorney refused to charge the drunk who totaled my new car because I had never had collision insurance in my 70 years plus of driving (He said the money I saved would allow me to replace my car )

  3. Jay

    Here’s my take… the 401 is better off with the extra lanes than not. If it were any smaller Toronto wouldn’t function. Secondly, public transport can be overrated. It’s painfully slow, even with rush hour traffic I shave 30 to 40 mins off one way on my commute driving vs transit. Transit is very fixed route, it’s efficient if you live at major hubs and work directly off one rail stop. Most jobs and homes aren’t at those locations. Prices for condos at major hubs can be very high. Anyway, the thing I hate is the 407 is an entirely good alternative for those living not right in downtown, but it’s so overpriced it will never be the true reliever route it was designed to be. We need to stop wasting so much money on transit lines, 6$ billion is enough for eglinton lrt, and start focusing on better vehicle traffic flow and street/highway improvements. Toronto won’t get better with the tens of billions they plan on spending on transit, we have enough transit now. Buses can pick up where rail services aren’t available. I’m not against transit, I appreciate that the thousands of people who use it aren’t on the highways, but too much attention has been paid to transit in this province for the past 10 years as our highways have seen little improvement.

  4. CC

    Good read- nice to see other acknowledging the BS that comes with taking the 401. Personally, I live in Whitby and in the last few weeks have needed to commute to Burlington/ Oakville. Taking these trips is horrific. 2 and a half hours to drive 100km on the 401/QEW is not only time consuming but mentally exhausting. I’ve come to the realization that despite the 407’s ridiculous fees- it’s almost worthwhile to take the toll road sacrificing an hours pay out of my 8 hour work day instead of risking getting stuck and losing an hour of pay from being late to work. Not to mention sitting on the 401 having your car idling as you barely move is not only bad for your car (long term costs) but also wastes your gas. The 407 is owned by a company in Sweden and its ridiculous that another country can make money by taking advantage of our bad infrastructure. I’ve heard people compare our traffic to that in LA which is ridiculous since Toronto has only a small fraction of their population.

    To the person above who commented on improving highway patrol, I completely agree and disagree. Yes, it should be increased but only to fine people like yourself who are afraid to get up to 120km/hr. You’re right the OPP doesn’t care if you go 120 and technically you don’t lose any demerit points unless you’re going over 130 so most people will take the risk. It’s just the way it is and if you can’t adjust then you shouldn’t be on the highway. It’s the slow People going 105 in the fast lane slowing down traffic, making people angry and causing them swerve/ speed/ cut others off which makes it dangerous. There are times on the 407 when everyone is going 120-140 and the highway moves perfectly fine and you actually get home at a decent time. If you want to go 100 stick to steeles Rd lol


    Iī wold like to se the demolition of the express lane system which is a joke and does not work obviously


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