ARTICLES

Portrait of a superhighway

It was one of the better ideas of a man named Hitler. Its adoption is changing our way of life. Among the most remarkable of these "rivers of wheels” is a year-round spectacle called Highway 400

ERIC HUTTON December 19 1959
ARTICLES

Portrait of a superhighway

It was one of the better ideas of a man named Hitler. Its adoption is changing our way of life. Among the most remarkable of these "rivers of wheels” is a year-round spectacle called Highway 400

ERIC HUTTON December 19 1959

Portrait of a superhighway

It was one of the better ideas of a man named Hitler. Its adoption is changing our way of life. Among the most remarkable of these "rivers of wheels” is a year-round spectacle called Highway 400

ERIC HUTTON

ADOLF HITLER, of unhallowed memory, unwittingly left one important legacy: the autobahn, True, his straight-across-country double highways were designed for wartime transport, but peaceable nations have adopted them for the somewhat less lethal use of massed automobile traffic and call them variously superhighways, expressways, thruways and divided highways. (Hitler’s other good idea, the Volkswagen, skitters along Canadian autobahns in ever-increasing thousands, but that’s a different story.)

On or beside the superhighway many a couple become engaged; in its nerve-racking traffic honeymoons begin — and some marriages break up. A few people are born on it, and rather more meet violent death. The superhighway has become as important a part of Canada’s new way of life as the twin-rutted concession or the gleaming railway line used to be of the old.

And of all the superhighways built in Canada since the war — a thousand miles of them — none is more celebrated than a stretch of fifty-three and two-tenths miles that runs northward from Toronto. Its official name is Highway 400. Its twin strips of twenty-fourfoot pavement carry seven million cars each year. It serves commuters of a dozen satellite towns around Toronto. It gives travelers and long-distance truckers a fast start toward Ontario’s vast northwest via the Trans-Canada Highway. Above all, it funnels a myriad of vacationers from southern Ontario and the United States into the holidaylands of Lake Simcoc. Muskoka, Georgian Bay. Parry Sound and points north.

Highway 400 is equally well known as the Barrie Highway, a name once regarded by the citizens of Barrie, a bustling little city on Lake Simcoc, as insult plus injury, since the highway doesn’t go to Barrie but bypasses it.

For a few memorable days after it was opened seven years ago the road bore its most romantic name: Huronia Highway. The Huron Historic Sites and Tourist Association campaigned for the name on the ground that the first tourist to follow the highway’s route was Etienne Brûlé, who explored the Huron Indian territory three hundred and fifty years ago. When highway officials took no action, Junior Chamber of Commerce volunteers, from Barrie, on a night foray, planted “Huronia Highway” signs at strategic points. Work crews removed the signs. The Huronians withdrew, muttering that highway officials were “lacking in a sense of romance.”

But even unromantic highway engineers admit that, under any name, the highway has developed a personality of its own that wasn’t in its blueprints. “Originally,” says John Fulton, Ontario’s deputy minister of highways, “we only planned 400 to siphon off some of the traffic that was jamming the two main routes running north from Toronto — the old Number 11 or Yongc Street highway and the newer Highway 27. But 400 kept growing out of its breeches and nowadays, although we highway engineers don’t really approve, we have to admit it has become more than just a means of getting cars from one place to another. It’s also an elongated public garden, a pleasure drive, a playground and picnic area, an institution and a conversation piece.”

Highway 400’s special qualities are not easy to define. It is neither the oldest nor the newest nor the longest nor the most expensive superhighway in Canada. Ontario's Queen Elizabeth Way preceded it by several years. It cost a mere $300,000 a mile, compared with $700,000 a mile

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Portrait of a superhighway

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“It's not the accident that causes the traffic jam; it’s ail those people slowing for a look”

for lesser roads through rugged terrain, and SI,()()(),()()() a mile for parts of Highway 401. with which it connects.

It’s the busiest highway in Canada, but only in a way that highway engineers consider inefficient. That is. one way at a time. When cars are streaming northward to the resort areas on a Friday evening at the rate of 2.700 an hour, only one tenth that number are using the southbound lanes. And on summer Sunday and holiday evenings when the southbound traffic volume reaches a peak of 3.000 an hour, only one ninth that number of cars are northbound.

But if engineers don't like that ratio, Sunday drivers do. Those roomy northbound lanes, separated by just thirty feet of grassy ravine from a bedlam of homebound carloads, have revived a pleasure long since lost to big-city residents: "going for a Sunday drive.” The picnic areas that Hank the highway are almost never wholly deserted, whatever the weather, and on pleasant afternoons they are crowded. Of course, eventually people have to come home in the heavy southbound traffic, but that’s part of the fun.

Highway 400 is. indeed, probably the only road in Canada that has an audience, practically a claque, of its own. On any pleasant summer Sunday or holiday evening standing room is at a premium on the dozen overpasses that serve as grandstands for 400’s continuous pageant.

Next to Niagara's waterfall, Highway 400 has become (along with Toronto's Casa Loma and the camels in that city's High Park) one of the most photographed sights in Ontario. A Toronto man who mass-processes amateur films for drugstores says he develops hundreds of snapshots that show the same scene: two solid lanes of automobiles stretching as far as the lens can see. with a contrasting sprinkling of cars headed the other way.

Actually, that scene only appears to be changeless. On a good day those closely packed cars are flashing by at the rate of fifty every minute — the heaviest oneway traffic in Canada.

Conversely, the overhead audiences are part of the spectacle of Highway 400 from the motorists* viewpoint. “They make me feel I'm taking part in a regatta.” says one weekend commuter from a Muskoka summer cottage. "I almost expect to see fishing rods dangling over the abutments."

It's not altogether fanciful to compare Highway 400 to a river that Hows on wheels. The illusion is heightened by the fact that, at the peak of the vacation season, about one car in five is towing a boat. Like a river, the highway's traffic can be turbulent. Where tributaries enter from side roads, the main current slows, swirls and eddies back before picking up speed again. Toss an obstacle — real or imaginary — into the stream and a truly gaudy disruption results. Last August a straying Hereford calf, standing on the shoulder like a hitchhiker and eying passing drivers speculatively, caused a slowdown that backed up traffic for four miles.

Although Highway 400 combines two of the most lethal ingredients of accidents — heavy traffic and speed (its limit

was raised from fifty to sixty miles per hour this spring) — it's the safest thoroughfare in Ontario. Its accident rate of fewer than two for every million miles driven on it is half that of all provincial highways, one third that of all Ontario streets and highways combined.

As a killer Highway 400 rates even lower. In seven years only forty-one persons have died in Highway 400 accidents — one for every twenty-five million carmiles. the equivalent of more than fifty trips to the moon and back.

But when an accident does occur on 400, it's likely to he spectacular, both in the number of cars involved and in the creation of traffic jams. Inspector John Clark of the Ontario Provincial Police. Barrie division, which patrols the northern half of the highway, has recorded a sixtcen-car rear-end pile-up. Stovc-in radiators and rear ends involving ten or a dozen cars occur practically every summer weekend. Highway 400 specializes in rear-end collisions. In seven years no fewer than eight hundred and sixty rearend or “overtaking” accidents have occurred. serious enough to he investigated by police. And for every such reported accident, police estimate, there may be a dozen lesser collisions in which drivers exchange heated words — and the names of their insurance agents.

Pheasants have right of way

Once, though, a nasty mishap ended in surprising cordiality. A panel truck suddenly braked. A car behind plowed into it. The irate car driver yelled to the truck driver: “Why the blankety-blank did you do that?"

"Didn't you see?” replied the other mildly. "A pheasant was walking four chicks across the road. Naturally I had to stop.”

“Naturally,” agreed the car driver, and both men drove their wrecks away.

“It isn't accidents that cause the worst traffic back-ups on 400,” says Inspector Clark. “It's human curiosity. An officer can get a minor two-car collision cleared off the highway in a couple of minutes. But no matter how vehemently he signals passing traffic to keep going, we've not been able to figure out a way to prevent drivers—all drivers—from slowing down to take a look.”

What happens then is simple mathematics: One driver slows from sixty to fifty for a glimpse. The driver behind (who wants his look too) must slow to forty-nine to keep a margin of safety. Subtract one mile an hour from the speed of each successive car, and in a mile or so traffic is at a standstill — on a clear highway.

Ontario Provincial Police have beet) experimenting, with promising results, with helicopter patrols to spot traffic jams and reach the scene quickly. At least two other planes hover over the highway on busy days, relaying traffic movements to Toronto radio stations that keep drivers, on or approaching the highway. informed of what lies ahead. Cars equipped with radiotelephones report to other radio stations in Toronto. Barrie, Orillia. Midland and Richmond Hill.

Bul most of the time, even when traffic is heavy, driving on 400 is so unobstruct-

ed that many motorists say the feeling is akin to flying (rather than boating). Part of this feeling comes from the unobstructed view of sky and distant horizon provided by the highway’s threehundred-foot-wide right of way. and by its continuous gentle undulations. Actually. the highway's slight roller-coaster contour is one of its built-in safety factors. Like its almost imperceptible curves, the undulations provide enough "change of scene” to prevent what experts call highway hypnosis, a lulling effect that overcomes a driver on a highway that is too straight, level and monotonous.

A more drastic cure was suggested by a King Township chicken farmer when he protested against the closing of concession roads that crossed the highway site. "Leave them open.” he demanded. "It will keep drivers alert if they never know when a farmer's truck will pop out of a side road.”

Another anti-hypnosis adjunct of Highway 400 is the horticultural display that flanks it — a thousand-acre garden, fiftythree miles long and a hundred feet wide on both sides of the pavement. It was laid out by Harold Spence, chief horticulturist of the Ontario Department of Highways, and a graduate of the Niagara Parks school.

"We aim at providing scenery that interests but does not distract drivers, Spence explains. "Most people who travel the highway seem to be amateur gardeners and our methods often puzzle them. They write to ask why we plant our trees and shrubs in large clusters, rather than space them evenly. The answer is that we have to show a viewer, passing at sixty miles an hour, a hundred trees for him to get the feeling that he has seen a tree.

Many people have told the department that it was a mistake to plant willows close together, as has been done near Barrie, since the trees will grow into a high dense hedge. "That happened to be what we needed." says Spence. "At Barrie there are houses nearer to the highway than anywhere else, and we're giving the residents a sound barrier against highway noise.”

The highway garden is an answer to critics who accuse the department of cutting trees ruthlessly to build highways. On 400. as on other new Ontario highways, a hundred trees and shrubs arc planted for every one cut down.

One plant that flourishes along parts of Highway 400 — and for which the department accepts no responsibility — is poison ivy. “We occasionally get complaints. from couples who seek seclusion and unwisely choose a place where poison ivy is growing through the fence, says Harold Gilbert, maintenance engineer for the highway. "But there's no poison ivy in the dozen roadside picnic areas we maintain.”

Although horticultural and other antihypnosis devices are approved by highway engineers, they believe in a firm distinction between enough and too much distraction for sixty-mile-an-hour drivers on Highway 400. Billboards within sight of the highway arc taboo (partly for aesthetic reasons too) and the manufacturers who have built neat, modern plants near Barrie and at the south end in Toronto are limited to modest signs, not more than fifty square feet in area, for example, on a hundred-foot building loçated two hundred feet from the highway. The sign must bear only the company's name, with no slogan. The company may display its products — boats, furniture, agricultural implements are among them — but must not call attention to them via signs.

This is very frustrating to some of the

companies, since no fewer than seventeen million potential customers drive past their premises every year, yet must not be beckoned to. Nevertheless the high "exposure value” of a trade name visible from the highway sent land values soaring after it was built. North York Township finally clamped on a ceiling of nine thousand dollars an acre in the area, to discourage speculative buying and encourage orderly development.

Two other roadside installations that the police patrolling the highway keep an eye on because they are somêwhat

distracting (although quite legal) are an outdoor movie with its screen facing the highway and an eight-acre public swimming pool. The origin of the pool was unusual. At first it was just a muddy rain-filled hole in the ground where a contractor had dug out fill for highway construction. Wallace Swanck. a Weston. Ont., man. drove by several times and noticed each time that although the water was shallow and dirty and the banks muddy, several cars were parked nearby and people were swimming or wading in the slough.

"If they want a swimming hole dial badly I’ll build one,” decided Swanek. He bought the property, enlarged and paved the excavation, refilled it with filtered water, set up snack shops, picnic tables and dressing rooms, and was in business. In 1959. in the first full summer of operation, three hundred thousand people paid admission, at seventy - five cents for adults, a quarter for children.

Highway 40()'s lack of billboards brings the Ontario Department of Travel considerable fan mail from United States tourists, who make up as much as twenty

percent of its traffic at the height of summer, with Ohio residents predominating. Tourists express surprise, too, at the absence of toll gates — and of roadside garbage.

“After the littered highways of my state,” a California woman wrote, “yours was a revelation. Are Canadians naturally tidier, or do you use clean-up crews?"

“Believe me," comments Harold Gilbert, “we use clean-up crews. Canadians are no tidier than other people." Eight men and two litter trucks are on constant patrol of .both sides of the highway all summer, collecting an amazing volume and variety of jetsam—some of it hurled at the roadside signs that give warning of a fifty-dollar fine for littering the highway.

Some motorists regard the highway as an ideal place for car cleaning — for emptying ashtrays or disposing of the remains of box lunches, empty cigarette packs, beer bottles and pop bottles. Motorists also manage to jettison brief cases and suitcases, jewelry, spectacles, watches and purses. Such valuables are seldom recovered unless they happen to fall near a highway clean-up crew. Usually they become treasure trove for other motorists or for the “beachcombers” who prospect the highway’s margins.

But Highway 400’s special harvest is an assortment of unlikely articles that are torn from the car-top carriers of cottage-bound travelers who seem to be unaware that a piece of string will not secure a top-heavy load at high speed. Lumber, doors, windows, chairs and other furniture arc frequently shed — in the path of following cars. One driver was astonished to see a boat passing his car. apparently under its own power. He looked again and recognized his own boat. The trailer hitch had become unfastened. One nasty accident was caused by a mattress that Hew off a car top and draped itself over the windshield of the car behind. On several occasions defective catches have caused car hoods to be caught in the high-speed windstream and torn off. to the peril of following traffic. Attendants at the two service stations on Highway 400 now have orders to pay special attention to the hood catches of cars they service.

For two years after Highway 400 was opened, there were no service stations on it.

Highway officials didn't feel they were needed. A car would use only two or three gallons for the trip There were several gas stations on Wilson Avenue at the highway’s south end. and at the north a phenomenon known as "Gasoline Alley" — a concentration of twenty service stations, motels and restaurants.

Finally, officialdom changed its mind and offered two service station-restaurant sites for lease (with particular misgivings about the restaurants since, as one official put it, "Who would bother to stop to eat on a fifty-mile trip?") One major oil company decided business would be too small to justify a bid Shell won the lease on the site fifteen miles up from Toronto on the northbound lane. BritishAmerican the southbound side, twelve miles below Barrie. Privately , officials of both companies philosophized that even if the stations didn't sell much gasoline, there was advertising value in having their names and insignia within view of millions of passing motorists.

Once more. Highway 400 upset men’s best calculations. Both stations sell more gasoline during the summer months than any of the other stations of their respective companies in Canada. Oddly enough, the two stations do a different type of business, although they serve travelers on

the same highway. Bill Gregg, lessee of the Shell station, gets an unusual number of "fill 'er up” orders from motorists vacation-bound with holiday money in their pockets. Ken Gould, who runs the B-A station, gels about the same number of customers but among them are many returning vacationers, richly tanned but with barely enough money for gas to get them home. Some offer to trade clothing, fishing tackle, jewelry — and once a tenpound lake trout — for gasoline, and Gould admits to being a fairly soft touch for a stranded motorist, especially

when he’s carrying a carload of children.

As to the fear that Highway 400 travelers wouldn’t stop to eat: Harry Bardwell, who runs the Shell restaurant, needs a staff of fifty-two to feed his customers throughout the summer. ( Both restaurants and service stations arc open for twenty-four hours a day. every day in the year, under the terms of their leases.) The B-A restaurant employs forty and serves as many as ten thousand meals and snacks on a summer holiday weekend.

“We also do the biggest rest room

business of any stations in Canada,” says Gregg. "It costs me $2.700 a year for washroom supplies, ten times the average for other Shell stations." The B-A station has a plumbing system that would serve a city of fifteen thousand.

The service stations are also required to have tow trucks available around the clock, but that is only part of the succor available to stranded motorists. When Highway 400 was first opened Toronto newspapers admired its surface but described the road as "lonely" and wondered what would happen to mo-

torists in need of help. What happens nowadays is that a motorist in trouble must sometimes wait as long as a couple of minutes before help arrives. In addition to the service station trucks and constant patrol by police cars and highway maintenance trucks, two Toronto companies, Carling’s Brewery and Speedy Auto Glass, run courtesy cars on the highway. They are equipped with firstaid kits, water cans, hot coffee, babybottle warmers, fire extinguishers and tire-changing tools.

Ross Curwin, in the Speedy car, made

one thousand stops to offer help last summer. John Wesley and Dan Standret, of the Carling's patrol, are senior medical students at the University of Toronto. (They were a little miffed at being required to pass Red Cross and St. John Ambulance first-aid courses to qualify for the job.) The injury they treat most often: scalds to hands and face caused when drivers of overheated cars incautiously open the radiator cap to investigate.

But the most frequent casualties of Highway 400 are not human. They are

elderly or neglected cars that succumb to the temptation of speed. Wesley and Standret encounter an average of five cars a week with engines burned out beyond repair, and twice that number with major mechanical breakdowns.

Bill Gregg, who tows away many of the derelicts, maintains that "too many people don't realize that driving an old car at sixty for a few miles can do more damage than a year's city driving."

Gregg is on cordial terms with the courtesy-car drivers, but wages undeclared war with “pirate garagemen" who

park their trucks on side roads and from the vantage of overpasses scan the highway for cars that stop with empty gas tanks, mechanical trouble or flat tires. Gregg contends that his contract to maintain twenty-four-hour service entitles him to first crack at service calls.

Actually. Highway 400's frequently swept pavement is remarkably free of hazards to tires. Until this year there were more “phony flats" on it than real ones. This phenomenon was caused by a ten-mile stretch paved with concrete instead of asphalt. It appeared deceptively smooth, but made cars shudder alarmingly. Many a driver who rode that concrete stretch for the first time pulled off the highway in the belief that he had a puncture. Once, a police car, following a New York car, pulled alongside as the tourist stopped hurriedly.

"I bet you think you have a flat tire,” said the officer.

“No.” answered the driver, “I know I have four flat tires.”

The explanation of that bad section is given by deputy highways minister John Fulton: for more than a decade, during the war and after, cement was scarce, and Ontario hadn’t used it for highways until 400 was planned. Then a contractor. inexperienced with concrete, laid down twenty-four-foot-wide slabs. These proved impossible to line up accurately, with bone-shaking results. This year the stretch was covered with asphalt, and became the smoothest — and fastest — section of the highway.

Speed and Highway 400 have always gone together. The first weekend it was open, seventy-five speeders were summoned. Since then the weekly bag of the police radar speed traps has ranged between a hundred and fifty and two hundred. with an average speed of eighty miles an hour. The speed record for the highway is held, unofficially, by Erie Stevenson, a Toronto aircraft mechanic, who described in a sports - car club's magazine how he had driven at a hundred and seventeen miles an hour, and added with regret that he "couldn’t open her up because the road was partly icy." Police saiil they couldn't lay a charge because all the evidence they had was Stevenson's published “confession."

Most speeders just mail in their fines — twenty-five to a hundred dollars depending on the speed at which they are clocked — but occasionally one comes to court with an excuse. Recent pleas include:

' I was testing my speedometer.”

"I was charging my battery.”

"I was blowing out the carbon in my motor.”

A seventy-five-mile-an-hour speeder explained: "About sixty percent of the drivers on this highway are erratic — I was just trying to escape from them."

Ernest Morgan, of Sudbury, clocked at a hundred and five miles an hour (and nicked a hundred and five dollars) gave an honest explanation: "1 had just never been on such a good road for speeding.”

A driver who admitted in court that he was speeding " to get home in time to see a TV show," confirmed the guess of highway department traffic experts that a noticeable increase in the urge of drivers to speed up between 7 and 8 p.m. on Sundays reflected the imminence of the Ed Sullivan Show.

One speed limit that no driver on the highway observes is the twenty miles per hour called for at a railway level crossing—a strange anachronism for a superhighway—near Barrie. I his crossing is the result of an impasse between the CNR and the Ontario Department of Highways. When 400 was being built a

department official said there was no point in spending S2(H),()();) for an underpass since the highway would probably take away so much of the railway’s traffic that the line would be abandoned. The CNR replied that it had no intention of abandoning the line. Since then, Barrie, with the help of the highway, has expanded its industries to such an extent that the railway's business has picked up too and it runs more trains than in prehighway days. After eleven accidents and two deaths at the crossing in seven years, officials have reached a compromise and a grade separation is being built.

When residents of Barrie learned that the new superhighway was to bypass their town, they cried ruin. For a third of a century virtually all traffic to and from the popular resort areas of Muskoka. Parry Sound and eastern Georgian Bay had funneled through Barrie's main street, which carried some of the most concentrated traffic of any street in Canada. Travelers had to be resigned to taking an hour to drive the few blocks through the town.

“When the police started detouring traffic from Highway 11 to the new bypass indignant merchants kept my telephone ringing until the small hours of the morning,” recalls Reg Welham. secretary-manager of the Barrie Chamber of Commerce. ““They were sure Barrie would become a ghost town. Today we wouldn't take a million dollars for the return of that traffic we thought was our life's blood for so many years.”

Barrie has become a prime exhibit of what happens to a town when it is bypassed by a superhighway. It turned out that the traffic that jammed Barrie's streets merely gave an illusion of business. Drivers were afraid to pull out of line and park long enough to buy so much as a hot dog. because of the difficulty of entering the traffic again. What's more, husbands who drove up for weekends at summer cottages in the Barrie area did the family grocery shopping before leaving Toronto, because it took half a day to find a parking place in Barrie on Saturdays. Farmers living in the Barrie area did their shopping else-

where for the same reason.

Soon after Highway 400 ““robbed” Barrie of its traffic, the town started to boom. Its population more than doubled in less than a decade, and this year the town became a city. Business, instead of being ruined, has increased its assessment from $560,000 to more than $2,000,000.

“Nowadays,” says Welham. “Barrie's streets seem just as busy — but the people who drive in come to buy."

If Barrie is happy, so arc the motorists who no longer have to crawl through the town. The greatest beneficiaries of Highway 400 are the thousands of people whose summer cottages it has moved an hour or more closer to their city homes. In I960 a twenty-mile cross-country expansion of 400 will cut another half hour from the trip to Severn River, Muskoka's Lake Joseph, and Parry Sound.

The junction of the highway with its new section is now being built. And. of course, it has a touch that is typically 400: traffic disruption is handled by the only four-lane, paved, divided detour in Canada. ★