Let’s Talk About Laneways

Let's Talk About Laneways ... and why they are no substitute for a bike lane network

New 'Laneways as Bikeways' project draws ire from some in the cycling community

Story and photos by Robert Zaichkowski. ~ Originally posted in Two Wheeled Politics. ~

Laneways have been getting a lot of attention in Toronto lately. There's the ongoing push to allow secondary homes to be built on top of laneway garages to help address Toronto’s housing shortage, while many laneway garages showcase all kinds of wonderful murals. One laneway I sometimes use as a shortcut to the Parkdale Library called Milky Way, is home to a community garden owned by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust.

Milky Way laneway in Parkdale


The use of laneways as shortcuts recently got the attention of the Canadian Urban Institute. The Canadian Urban Institute – along with the Community Bicycle Network (CBN) and The Laneway Project – have been working on the Laneways as Bikeways Project, which is determining the feasibility of using laneways to complement and connect gaps in Toronto’s cycling network. The project backgrounder suggests laneways could serve as an interim, low-cost solution while the City continues rolling out their ten-year cycling network plan and is collecting feedback via this survey and stakeholder meetings up until September 15.

Laneways and bikeways map from the project backgrounder

Thanks to Adrian Currie of CBN, I got a better understanding about why that organization supports the project. The project aims to identify how many cyclists use laneways (which many people do), what the obstacles are, and how laneways could be improved if they were deemed to be viable. He reminded me that the laneway project is only at the research phase and that the largely negative pushback both offline and on social media via the #BikeTO Twitter hashtag and Facebook groups like Biking Toronto – was totally expected. He said bike couriers frequently use laneways and might appreciate the idea of having laneways mapped out. The reception at a recent ArtSpin event was also favourable.

View of CAMH laneway entrance looking west

In some neighbourhoods like Parkdale - which sorely lack east-west alternates to King and Queen Streets, neither of which are expected to get bike lanes anytime soon - there could be some benefit to embracing laneways as alternative routes for cyclists. There is one laneway through CAMH that was made accessible to cyclists last year and will eventually link the West Toronto Railpath extension to Richmond, Adelaide, and Shaw Streets per the cycling network plan.

Having said all that, there are still many significant problems with using laneways as bikeways.

Entrance to CAMH laneway from Sudbury Street with way finding "sharrow."

This laneway proposal has some parallels to the introduction of sharrows. In the same way that sharrows can legitimately be used for short stretches on quiet residential streets, sharrows give the false impression cities are promoting cycling when they simply do not address the fundamental safety issues on arterial roads. With many destinations such as work, school, and commerce being on arterial roads, protected bike lanes are needed on those same roads to encourage more people to use their bicycles for transportation.

A side laneway on the left is used for cars to get in and out. Other laneways have garages for this purpose.

The social media reaction revealed a wide number of reasons why laneways as bikeways do not work. To start, there is a lack of City standards regarding laneway lighting, pothole repair, speed bumps, snow removal, and the narrow and inconsistent widths ranging from three to six metres. Speaking of width, delivery vehicles – and even passenger cars – using the laneways can result in the laneway being fully blocked, meaning cyclists need to turn around and use adjacent public roads anyway. Cars getting in and out of garages are another real safety concern; especially when drivers back out and cannot see (nor do they expect) cyclists and pedestrians.

Laneways are too short and disconnected for them to be practical for commuting, while they create danger when crossing public roads (especially at arterials.) Laneways are virtually nonexistent in the suburbs and the greater concentration of existing and planned bike lanes in the downtown core make the use of laneways impractical.

While there can be some advantages to using laneways in limited circumstances, the main focus must remain on building the minimum grid of protected bike lanes and bicycle boulevards. With the 905 suburbs from Ajax to Mississauga getting it right on cycling, Toronto cannot afford to be distracted by laneways and fall even further behind in the fight for safer streets.

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One response to “Let’s Talk About Laneways”

  1. Robyn says:

    There’s also a need for a gender-based analysis on this — laneways are not comfortable spaces for many women (bad sightlines, few escape options, etc.).

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