The Spadina Expressway was proposed in the mid-1960s as part of a network of freeways in Metropolitan Toronto. Originally to run from north of Highway 401 into the downtown area via the Cedarvale Ravine and Spadina Road, it was only partially built before being cancelled in 1971.
Allen Road (the short completed section of the truncated Spadina Expressway), along with the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, make up the municipal expressway system in Toronto. These are the expressways which are owned and operated by the City of Toronto. The remainder of the expressway system in the city, consisting of the 400-series highways (such as 400, 401, 404, 409, and 427) and the Queen Elizabeth Way, are owned and operated by the Province of Ontario.
The Spadina Expressway was part of the official transit plan by Metro Toronto Chairman Frederick G. Gardiner. At the time, there was no north-south expressway in the central part of Metropolitan Toronto, as Highway 27 (later Highway 427) was in the west while the Don Valley Parkway was east of centre. The construction of the expressway had the support of the owners of the new Yorkdale Shopping Centre.
As construction proceeded, opposition to the expressway grew among residents of the neighbourhoods in its path, including the affluent and well-established communities of Forest Hill and The Annex. They claimed that the new road would tear apart their neighbourhoods and choke the area with new traffic and air pollution. They also argued that it would ruin an irreplaceable natural area and require the demolition of hundreds of homes, as well as historic buildings such as Spadina House and Knox College.
Grassroots protests by downtown residents and, eventually, a considerable lobbying effort, turned the tide against the expressway. (Notable among the opposition was urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who moved to the Annex in 1969, fresh from a battle to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway in New York City.) However, the Ontario Municipal Board backed the Spadina Expressway in a 2-1 decision.
Marshall McLuhan, too, was opposed to the expressway and said: "Toronto will commit suicide if it plunges the Spadina Expressway into its heart... our planners are 19th century men with a naive faith in an obsolete technology. In an age of software Metro planners treat people like hardware — they haven't the faintest interest in the values of neighbourhoods or community. Their failure to learn from the mistakes of American cities will be ours too."
In June 1971, an appeal led the provincial government of Bill Davis to withdraw its support, effectively killing the project. Speaking in the Ontario Legislature, Davis said: "If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop" (quoted in Sewell, 1993). Davis announced that there would be no further funding for the freeway's completion, but the province would support the new Spadina subway line extension instead. Others, including Sam Cass who was Commissioner for Roads and Traffic Engineering for Metro Toronto, maintained that Davis based his decision on political considerations rather than sound planning because of an impending provincial election to be held later that year.
When construction was halted in 1971, the expressway was paved to Lawrence Avenue while the portion running further south to Eglinton Avenue had only been graded, giving it the nickname "Davis ditch". North York councillor Esther Shiner led a counter campaign to get the expressway completed to Eglinton Avenue. She was also the driving force behind the Highway 400 extension, now known as Black Creek Drive, to be built also to Eglinton Avenue. She demonstrated that 'people-power' could work for expressways as well as against them.
In 1985, when Davis announced his retirement from Provincial politics, one of his last acts was to grant a 1 metre wide strip of land on the south side Eglinton Ave. West to the City of Toronto to ensure that no southerly extension would ever be built. Had Metro not agreed to this, then the province would seize the land and have Metro pay half the cost of the Highway 400 extension. The land barrier was rendered moot when Metro was abolished in 1997, with the existing City of Toronto being amalgamated into a "megacity" which was also known as the City of Toronto.
When the project was stopped, the expressway was complete from Wilson Avenue to Lawrence Avenue, and the land had been cleared and graded for it to continue south to Eglinton Avenue. Five years later the section to Eglinton was completed; still later, a northern extension was built as an arterial road which becomes Dufferin Street north of Sheppard Avenue.
Renamed the William R. Allen Expressway after the former chair of Metropolitan Toronto, the expressway was later given the title of William R. Allen Road to indicate its truncated status. It is commonly referred to as "The Allen" by locals. The Spadina subway line, opened in 1978, runs down its median from Wilson to Eglinton, where it descends underground and follows the approximate route planned for later sections of the expressway. In 1996 Downsview station was opened at Sheppard & Allen Rd as the final stop on the Yonge-University-Spadina Line (however there are now plans to extend the subway line north into the City of Vaughan). Pro-car politicians argued that an extension from Eglinton to St. Clair/Bathurst through the Cedarvale Ravine would require little demolition of private properties and alleviate the current bottleneck at the Eglinton Avenue terminus of Allen Road. The CAA has suggested that tunneling under Eglinton Ave, on a route to connect the Spadina Expressway through to St. Clair Avenue and onwards to Bloor Street, would be a solution to get the expressway completed without demolition of private properties.
The end of the Spadina was also a turning point in Metropolitan Toronto's (later City of Toronto after 1997) growth history; many businesses disliked the new urban-reform measures which were seen as anti-development policies. Because of its perceived anti-car policies, Toronto was no longer as attractive to development as it formerly was and businesses migrated towards Peel Region and York Region where taxes were lower and where there were less growth restrictions and extensive freeway networks.
The cancellation of the Spadina Expressway also spelled the end for the rest of the proposed network, including the Crosstown, Richview and Scarborough expressways. To date, no further expressways have been built in Toronto, leaving only two express routes to serve the downtown core: the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway, whose own future is under continual debate. Pro-expressway politicians say that this lack of new construction is a major cause of traffic congestion in the city, saying that car ownership has continued to climb while TTC ridership has not increased despite some investment. Opponents of expressways argued that the phenomenon of induced demand is a reason to avoid new road construction, saying that the solution is to get drivers to switch to the TTC. All recent versions of the Toronto Official Plan have focused exclusively on mass transit improvements.
The provincial government later built a parallel highway to the west of the Spadina, a short extension of Highway 400 known as Black Creek Drive which was intended to draw some of the traffic away from the truncated Spadina. The province transferred ownership of Black Creek Drive to the City upon its completion in 1982. However, Allen ends at Eglinton Avenue and Black Creek Drive ends at Weston Road south of Eglinton, reaching neither Bloor Street nor the Gardiner Expressway.