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An expressway is a divided highway, usually 4 lanes or wider in size, where direct access to adjacent properties has been eliminated. However, beyond those basic requirements, the specific meaning of expressway depends upon the state, province, or country.

Some places treat "expressway" as synonymous with "freeway", meaning that an expressway is fully grade-separated from all intersecting roads and traffic smoothly enters by merging from on-ramps, and exits only through steering onto off-ramps. Often, "expressway" is such a loose term that it has been labelled to roads ranging from freeways to super-2s (intended to be upgraded to freeways) and partial control-access arterials (such as the relocated Highway 7 in Richmond Hill, Ontario). "Freeway", on the other hand, refers strictly to a full controlled-access divided roadway.

A typical Santa Clara County,  California, USA, expressway.  Note the presence of traffic lights.
A typical Santa Clara County, California, USA, expressway. Note the presence of traffic lights.

Other places, like California, draw a strong legal distinction between freeways and expressways. Section 257 of the California Streets and Highway Code is as follows:

For the purpose of this article only, and to distinguish between the terms "freeway" and "expressway," the word "freeway" shall mean a divided arterial highway for through traffic with full control of access and with grade separations at intersections, while the word "expressway" shall mean an arterial highway for through traffic which may have partial control of access, but which may or may not be divided or have grade separations at intersections.

Under this definition, many famous expressways are technically "freeways" instead of "expressways," such as the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto and the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia.

The point of Section 257 is that California expressways can have at-grade intersections, which are much more dangerous than grade-separated interchanges. See the article on freeways for more information about the subtle distinctions between freeways and expressways.

The vast majority of expressways in either sense are built by state or provincial governments, or by private companies which then operate them as toll roads pursuant to a license from the government.

The most famous exception to the above rule is Santa Clara County in California, which deliberately built its own expressway system in the 1960s to supplement the freeway system then planned by Caltrans. Although there were some plans to upgrade the county expressways into full-fledged freeways, those became politically infeasible after the rise of the tax revolt movement in the mid-1970s.

Depending on the development nature and frequency of intersections, most at-grade expressways have speed limits of 45-55 mph (70-90 km/h) in urban areas and 55-65 mph (90-100 km/h) in rural areas.

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