July 24, 2017

Let's Talk About Laneways

Laneways have been getting a lot of attention in Toronto as of late. There is 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 murals. One laneway I sometimes use as a shortcut to the Parkdale Library – Milky Way – is home to a community garden and the first piece of property owned by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust.
Milky Way laneway in Parkdale

This use of laneways as shortcuts has gotten the attention of the Canadian Urban Institute. They – in partnership 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 argued laneways could serve as interim, low-cost solutions while the City continues its rollout of their ten-year Cycling Network Plan and is collecting feedback via this survey and stakeholder meetings until September 15.
Laneways and bikeways map from the project backgrounder
Thanks to Adrian Currie of CBN, I was able to get a better understanding as to why that organization was supporting the project. The project is aimed 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 gave a reminder the laneway project is only at the research phase and that the largely negative pushback offline and on social media – via the #BikeTO Twitter hashtag and Facebook groups like Biking Toronto – was expected. He noted bike couriers frequently used laneways and appreciated the idea of having the laneways mapped out, while the reception at yesterday's Artspin event was more favourable.
View of CAMH laneway entrance looking west
In some neighbourhoods like Parkdale which have a lack of east-west alternates to King and Queen Streets - neither of which are expected to get bike lanes anytime soon - there could be some benefit. There is one laneway through CAMH made accessible to cyclists last year and would eventually link the West Toronto Railpath extension to Richmond, Adelaide, and Shaw Streets per the Cycling Network Plan. Having said that, there are significant problems with using laneways as bikeways.
Entrance to CAMH laneway from Sudbury Street with wayfinding sharrow
This laneway proposal has some parallels to the introduction of sharrows. Just as how sharrows can legitimately be used for short stretches on quiet residential streets, sharrows give the false impression cities are promoting cycling when they do not address the fundamental safety issues on arterial roads. With many of our destinations such as work, school, and commerce being on arterial roads, protected bike lanes are needed on those roads to encourage more people to ride.
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. 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 per the backgrounder. Speaking of width, delivery vehicles – and even passenger cars – using the laneways can result in cyclists being blocked and therefore, need to turn around and use public roads. Cars getting in and out of garages are another safety concern; especially when drivers back out and cannot see cyclists and pedestrians as well.

Laneways are too short and disconnected for them to be practical for commuting, while they create danger when crossing public roads (especially 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 not as practical.

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.

UPDATE (2017/08/06) - A slightly revised version of this post is available on Dandyhorse.

Take the lane!
Rob Z (e-mail)

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