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Highway 401 from Detroit/Windsor – Toronto – Kingston – Montreal

What to See & Do along the Highway 401 ?

Highway 401 is the main east-west transportation corridor connecting most major southern Oontario communities. It begins at the Detroit-Windsor border and heads east through London, Kitchener-Waterloo,  Oakville, Mississauga, Toronto, Oshawa, Whitby and then provides access to the Haliburton, Trent-Severn, Prince Edward County, Rideau Canal, Thousand Islands, and St Lawrence Seaway vacation areas.

Highway 401 IS NOT part of the Trans Canada Highway network. It connects to the Trans Canada Highway Main Route just west of Montreal.

Ontario Highway 401



Ontario Highway 401

The Macdonald-Cartier Freeway, Ontario Highway 401

Highway 401 is the primary and busiest thoroughfare across Southern, Central and Eastern Ontario.The highway was completed the late 1960s to bypass Toronto, but with the post-War growth of automobile plants, other manufacturing, and the construction of vast bedroom communities around Toronto (and the expansion of its airport), the 401 is an important economic corridor. used by millions of motorists. The 401 section between Weston Road and Highway 400 carries over 420,000 vehicles on an average day, making it North America’s busiest highway.

From Windsor east to Mississauga, the route is mostly rural, a passing through farms and countryside.  While it touches on urban areas near major interchanges, it manages to skirt by major urban centres like Chatham-KentLondon and Kitchener-Waterloo. In that western section, Highway 401 does pass through smaller commuinities like Tilbury, Woodstock, Cambridge, and Milton. At Mississauga, the highway enters the Greater Toronto Are (“GTA”), where there is mostly residential mixed with office/industrial land use, which continues unabated through to Pickering and  Oshawa at the east end of the GTA.

From Oshawa east, the highway apasses through largely rural countryside (farming and forests) and touches on a number of smaller communities along the northshore of Lake Ontario, including Quinte (Trenton), Belleville, and Kingston. From there is moves along mostly farm country on the north bank of the St Lawrence River and Seaway, but away from the water and away from the communities along the water (you can vist each of these towns along the Seaway by travelling along Highway 2).

Highway 401 History Overview

By the 1930s a two lane Highway 2 stretched across the province near the shore of Lake Ontario. By World War II and new four lane Highway 2A was built further away from the lake initially between Westhill (Scarborough) and Oshawa. In 1952, the 400-series of highway standards was introduced.

The most important link in Highway 401 was the Toronto Bypass. This critical section of the new highway ran just to the north of the urbanized area of Toronto. The Toronto Bypass was completed in 1956 after several years of construction. It ran from Highway 27 (Etobicoke)  to West Hill (in Scarborough).

By the late 1950s, congestion was becoming a serious problem on Highway 401 across Toronto. The Toronto Bypass was widened to a minimum of twelve lanes (six lanes per direction) from Islington Avenue to Neilson Road during the 1960s and early 1970s, with a median between collector and express lanes to separate local traffic from through traffic. Motorists could only enter or exit the highway from the local/collector lanes (except at a handful of freeway interchanges) but motorists can switch between the express and collector lanes at strategic intervals.

The final section of Highway 401 was completed between Gananoque and Brockville in 1968, completing this 818 km controlled-access freeway across the southern half of Ontario. In the areas east and west of Toronto, service stations and restaurants were built just off the highway, so travellers would never need to exit the highway, further speeding the flow.  The highway was officially rededicated as the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway in 1965, to commemorate two of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George Etienne Cartier. Special commemorative highway signs were placed  at every entrance to the highway, but over an era of  government cost-cutting, these signs were   phased out in the 1990s.

Milton-Kelso-401 West-Bound Traffic - sliver ( Stefanie Richardson)
Milton-Kelso-401 West-Bound Traffic - sliver ( Stefanie Richardson)


In 1985, the collector-express section of Highway 401 was extended west between Highway 427 and Highway 403 in Mississauga, widened to eighteen though lanes (nine lanes for each direction). In 1997, the Scarbourough-Pickering section was widened to twelve lanes (six lanes in each direction). Across Mississauga, Highway 401 was widened from Hurontario Street to the Credit River (2016-2020) and will be xptended west to Milton (scheduled completion in 2022).

Many other sections of Highway 401 have been widened to six lanes since the 1970s, including Mississauga to Kitchener (1980s and 1990s. The highway was also widened to six lanes from London to Woodstock during the early 1990s and , Kitchener to Highway 97 (2000s), through Ajax, Whitby, Oshawa and Bowmanville (1970s to early 1980s), from Windsor to Tilbury (2000s).

In 2007, Highway 401 from Trenton to Toronto was re-dedicated as the “Highway of Heroes”, to commemorate Canada’s fallen soldiers who served in Afghanistan.

Toronto 401 near Don Valley Parkway 404
Toronto 401 near Don Valley Parkway 404

Detroit-Windsor Gordie Howe Bridge

Currently, there is one bridge and one tunnel connecting Detroit and Windsor over the Detroit River (which is part of the St Lawrence Seaway and connects Lake Erie with Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior) which is the privately owned Ambassador Bridge. The Ambassador Bridge was buit in 1929, followed by construction of the  Detroit–Windsor Tunnel in 1930.

The Ambassador Bridge is the busiest crossing on the Canada–United States border, with nearly 25% of U.S.–Canada border crossings by trucks using the bridge. Since trucks are not allowed in teh tunnel, the Ambassador Bridge has  had a monopoly on commerical traffic. Both the bridge and the road tunnel lack direct highway connections on the Canadian side, so there is plenty of room for improvement.

The Gordie Howe International Bridge (also known as the Detroit River International Crossing or the New International Trade Crossing) is a cable-stayed international bridge across the Detroit River, currently under construction. This new bridge, funded entirely by the Canadian government, will connect Interstate 75 in Michigan with Highway 401 in Ontario (via the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray Parkway extension of Highway 401). 

Land acquisistion began in 2013, and in 2015 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the bridge would be known as the Gordie Howe International Bridge after Canadian ice hockey player Gordie Howe, who played 25 years with the Detroit Red Wings. In May 2018, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against the Ambassador Bridge’s billionaire owner Moroun’s attempt to stop expropriations on the Michigan side of the river. This allowed construction of the U.S. plaza and road access to the bridge to begin.

The cable-stayed bridge design is by chief bridge architect of AECOM, Erik Behrens. It will have two “A”-shaped bridge towers (220 m / 720 ft high) built on the banks of the Detroit River, six lanes for automotive traffic, and a bicycle and walking path. It will be 2.5 km (1.6 mi) long. Its centre span of 853 m  / 2,799 ft will be the longest main span of any cable-stayed bridge in North America.

The centre of the road deck will be 46 metres/150 feet above water to accommodate the Detroit River shipping. A the two towers, the road will be 42 metres/138 feet above water with a five per cent incline to the  overland approaches to Michigan’s I-75 and Ontario’s 401.