Canadians in Ontario: Why do most of the highways start with 4?

So I’m driving up the QEW in Ontario to visit my fiancee. This is the first time that I’m driving up there without directions. I know that I have to take the exit for Rt. 403. I take it and then promptly realize that I’m lost. I took the wrong 403. There is more than one 403!!! And then I notice that there is a 410, a 407, a 401, etc.

If you’re using 3-digit numbers anyway, why do they all start with 4? Please give me a rational answer to this one. And please don’t say that 4 is the Queen’s favorite number.

Provincially-maintained highways in Ontario are numbered in several different series.

2 to (presumably) 399: regular provincial highways.
Originally these were set up to be a coherent network of routes linking the main towns and cities (see rant below). They may include some partially-limited-access roads or limited-access freeways, such as Highway 115 east of Toronto.

*400 to (presumably) 499: limited-access freeways. *
These are often referred to as simply ‘the 400’, the 401’, etc.
They are often numbered similarly to previously-existing highways nearby: for instance, Highway 407, the toll freeway that runs north of Toronto, parallels the older Highway 7.

This set also includes the Queen Elizabeth Way (universally referred to as ‘the QEW’) from Toronto to the US border at Fort Erie. The first version of the QEW was finished in 1939, just in time to be pounded to pieces by the traffic of the Second World War. It was later rebuilt in the fifties and sixties as a full freeway, but because of its historical nature, it retained the QEW designation and never acquired a 400-series number.

I believe that the Ministry of Transportation refers to the Queen Elizabeth Way internally as Highway 1, but, if true, this naming never escaped the Ministry to the wider public.

500 to 599: secondary highways.
Many of these were lost to the Great Renumbering (see below).

600-699: tertiary highways.
I believe there are only a few of these in the far north.

There are also numbered routes belonging to individual counties and regional municipalities.

Incidentally, Ontarians never refer to a highway as ‘route 401’ or whatever; this usage of the word ‘route’ is a dead giveaway that you are from out-of-province, and probably from the States.

Yes, Highway 403 does exist in two parts. It branches off the 401 near Woodstock, goes through Brantford to Hamilton, and joins the QEW in Burlington. Further east, it leaves the QEW in Oakville, and goes northeast through Mississauga to end at the 401.

If you look at a map, you will see that the two segments of the 403 are connected by a segment of Highway 407, the toll road. IMHO, this segment of the 407 should have been numbered 403, to make one logical whole of the route. But road numbering in Ontario has ceased to be logical…

The Great Renumbering
The provincial government led by Premier Mike Harris decided to shave its costs by ‘giving’ many stretches of highway to municipalities. It was deemed that the newly-transferred roads could no longer carry provincial highway numbers, so we had to renumber them and change all the signs and maps. Continuous routes that once logically carried single numbers from town to town now exist under a welter of different names. This unneccesary renumbering has made navigating in the province significantly more difficult for visitors.

Thanks Sunspace. Perhaps Ontario should begin using the higher 400’s, like maybe 449 or 473. Are they afraid that they’re going to run out of numbers?

Actually, there just aren’t that many freeways in Ontario. The highest number is 427, which parallels Highway 27. The others are 400, 401, 402, 403, 404, 405, 406, 407, 409, 410, 412, 416, 417, 420. Plus the QEW. I think that’s it. (And that I can remember those from memory is scary, especially when I don’t even have a car…)
Now, there are other stretches of highway that are freeway-like, but I think that the 400-series were purposely-designed as freeways from the start. The only new 400-series I can think of in the last two decades even were the 416 (paralleling Highway 16, from Ottawa south to the 401, Prescott, and the Bridge to USA), and the 407 in the Greater Toronto Area.

The reason is the Canadain squadrons in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War were numbered 400 so that they could be recognized as different from the British squadrons. So, the highways are numbered as a remembrance.

Since this thread was started, the province has put Highway 403 shields alongside QEW signs on the connecting segment to help people figure it out.

And the 407 is no longer a freeway but a toll road.

It was always a toll road, but to me, the “free” in freeway is the movement (high speeds, divided, no cross traffic, etc.), not the price. I would consider most toll roads to be freeways.

Were the highways also numbered as a remembrance of the Australian and New Zealand squadrons in the RAF, which were also numbered in the 400s? Please. The “400” designations came about in 1952 to distinguish the new series of nominally 4-lane divided limited-access freeways from all the other provincial highways. Since then many sections have been expanded to be much wider than that, but that’s what “4xx” continues to mean.

This is, of course, not true. (And it’s not even true that all RCAF squadrons were 400-series in World War II.)

They are numbered with 4 because those numbers were not in use when they began building the system, and the “4XX” designation works well to distinguish freeways from other highways. As has been pointed out, it also had the neat coincidence of accurately describing a 4-lane freeway, though of course many of them are a lot wider than 4 lanes now.

“Freeway” in Ontario law and highway design is a term of art meaning a highway with restricted ramp access, no intersecting roads, and multiple lanes, designed for high speed driving. The 407 is a freeway.

The best part of driving the 407 is that whooshing sound because traffic moves so much faster! :wink:

I recall the lesson from my Young Drivers of Canada course. Everything we call a “highway” is actually a freeway. Actual “highways” are the higher-speed (like 80kph) back roads.

Highways go over hills. Freeways they blast the hills out of the way for. :slight_smile:

Some more factoids so you don’t sound like a tourist if you visit:

  • the 400 series highways, er, freeways, always take the definitive article. So one takes “the 407”
  • With the exception of the 400, you pronounce all 400 series highways with a zero in the middle by stating each of the three digits, but replacing the zero with an “oh”. So the 4-0h-1, the 4-0h-7, etc.
  • the 400 series highways >/=410 are pronounced 4-and then the remaining two digits as a single number (so 4-10; 4-27)


Also the jet-scream sound from the concrete surface on the section of freeway through the immediate Toronto area. You can pretend you’re flying a jet while thinking about the poor schlubs stuck on the 401! :smiley:

With the exception of putting “the” in front, these conventions are all standard in the US as well.

It’s even more general than that.

Essentially any public road is a highway in Ontario. “Freeway” is not defined in the Act.

By the way, it’s been over 14 years since I posted the OP, in which I mentioned that I was driving to visit my fiancee. Well since then, we got married, had 2 kids, got divorced, she moved back to Toronto. I’ve been to Toronto well over 100 times since then, and know the roads like the back of my hand. I do call it “the 403”, but can’t pinpoint when I switched over.

In the United States, the Interstate highway numbers are also not necessarily unique. The same number could be used for several different highways in different places.

Description of the numbering protocol for the Interstate highways (with the proviso that the rules are not strictly followed everywhere).

Accepted definitions from the US Federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways-2009 Edition

  1. Expressway—a divided highway with partial control of access.
  2. Freeway—a divided highway with full control of access.
  3. Highway—a general term for denoting a public way for purposes of vehicular travel, including the entire area within the right-of-way.
  4. Road—see Roadway.
  5. Roadway—that portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel and parking lanes, but exclusive of the sidewalk, berm, or shoulder even though such sidewalk, berm, or shoulder is used by persons riding bicycles or other human-powered vehicles. In the event a highway includes two or more separate roadways, the term roadway as used in this Manual shall refer to any such roadway separately, but not to all such roadways collectively.
  6. Street—see Highway.