Trade lanes are structures that permit superluminal travel within a system. Trade lane entry and termination points are usually located near key industrial, military, and civilian bases.
The trade lane system is the backbone of transportation within civilized space, akin to the highway network. Each lane consists of dozens of pairs of "rings" between the two destinations with each pair spaced 7K apart. Each ring is made of four "brackets" that create the tunnel for ships to fly through. Pairs of rings are arranged with one on top and the other on bottom -- the top set moves the user in one direction, the bottom set moves the user in the other direction.
Activating a ring is simple: pilots merely dock with a ring in the direction they're travelling in, and once they're in the middle of the brackets, the ring will accelerate them to superluminal speeds. Trade lanes are the fastest and safest method of transporting commodities and personnel within and between the Colonies.
Trade lanes function by creating positive gravitational potential energy between each set of rings, thus "stretching" the spacetime metric between them. (More precisely, it creates a Shapiro delay between the rings that is smaller than one.) As a result, the distance between the rings is much shorter than in normal space, so any amount of movement through the rings, including the motion of light itself, will appear many times greater to an outside observer.
The first trade lane was established through a joint venture between Monument Engineering and Valhalla Research (now Ageira Technologies) in 280 A.S., and by 350 A.S., most of Liberty space was crisscrossed by trade lanes. Through financing from Interspace Commerce, the trade lane network was further extended into the other three Houses, helping to create a truly sector-wide economy.
Ageira plans to expand the trade lane network even further beyond the Houses, as seen in Tau-31 Trade Lane Construction site.
When you're docking with a trade lane, you can't fly or use your thrusters while your ship automatically guides you to the entry point, so you're especially vulnerable to enemy fire. The best tactic for escaping into a trade lane (or just using them quickly) is to fly to the entry point yourself and then dock. As a result, you enter the lane immediately, so it accelerates you right away.
Another way to exploit the system is to drop out of the lane just before you cross the penultimate ring, then get back in. This is because lanes speed you up after you depart an entry point and slow you down as you approach the termination point, but it turns out lanes prioritize the former over the latter. As a result, entering the penultimate ring means you'll shoot out of the final ring moving very quickly, so you'll end up a few precious seconds closer to the next leg of your journey. This is especially useful for escaping authorities when carrying contraband.
Trade lanes can be disrupted by shooting at one of the brackets. You can disrupt lanes yourself to force ships behind you out of warp, usually so you can attack them and steal their cargo without retribution from the police, but more often than not, it's you who will be knocked out of the lane by a squadron of pirates. Trade lanes will recover after thirty seconds. Interestingly, when a ring reboots, pirates can't disrupt it again because they aim for the center of the model instead of at one of the brackets, so their shots pass through the gap between the rings to no effect.