Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The 401, the 4O1 to those he (nothing so monstrous could possibly be female) knows, really ought to be designated as a sixteenth ecosystem in high school geography textbooks. Commensurate with this designation are its sixteen lanes through Toronto, which form a concrete serpent sharply dividing the city. There probably aren't many roads in the world that are as encompassing as the 401; when Highway 401 sits around the magnificently appointed Tuscan villa, it sits around the magnificently appointed Tuscan villa. The road is all you see, in other words, and you're lucky if you can ever see the road instead of the backside of a tractor-trailer.

The astonishing size of the 401, like an obese man who winds up as a Learning Channel freak show masquerading as a medical subject, speaks to the priorities of the city. The only way of crossing Toronto east-west without going downtown to the Gardiner or Bloor-Danforth subway is the 401. The only attempt at another crosstown route in the last half century, in which the city's population has quadrupled, was the short-lived Eglinton subway. A hole was reportedly dug at Eglinton West station, filled back in, and Highway 407 constructed instead to the north of the city.

A highway that would bypass the congestion of the city may seem like a novel idea, but it has already been tried in Toronto. In fact, it succeeded so well that it became the most popular highway in the city and became the subject of this entry. Traffic, construction and a bewildering array of concrete barriers are a certainty on the 401.

A new $2-billion project will improve Ontario's roads, including applying more balm to the concrete underbelly of the 401. Cars, trucks, buses and stretch Hummers will continue to crawl along the scaly skin above, getting nowhere. All of those three dozen lanes, apparently, are far more important than any sort of subway, light rail, or bus corridor. We have to fatten the beast so that he can feed us, or maybe it's the other way around.

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