Construction has begun on a 1,700-square-foot bicycle transit center at Union Station in Washington, DC.  The station will hold approximately 150 bikes on 2-tier racks and will also offer bicycle rentals and repairs.  Although the station will not have showers or bathrooms, it will include a changing room and lockers that will be available for members.  Membership will cost approximately $1 per day or $100 for a year. Government officials expect revenue from rentals and repairs will offset the cost of the $3 million dollar structure.

I interviewed Donald C. Paine Jr., a principal at KGB Design Studio and the lead architect behind Union Station’s new bike transit station. Paine, who received his masters from Harvard

University, is also leading KGB’s design efforts for the Dulles Corridor Metrorail

Project.

When do you get involved with the bike transit project?

For us, it began in the fall in 2005.  James Sebastian [DDOT’s bicycle and pedestrian program manager] somehow managed to get Union Station, which is a semi-private corporation, to agree to give up the site.

Why put the station at Union Station as opposed to another site in the city?

Well, the rationale was that it’s on the Metropolitan Branch Trail bike trail; it’s part of a major transportation node; and it’s also next to the National Mall.

This is the first bike station in the eastern United States. Where did you look for inspiration?

I had never dreamt of doing a bike station.  There are some in California that we looked at run by Bikestation, as well as some abroad.

Did the plans evolve much over time?

At first, DDOT came to us with the request that we build something against Union Station’s portico. Basically, they wanted the bike station slapped right up against the building. They saw it as similar to the book store, which was built as an addition about twenty years ago. They saw the bike station as another shed against the building.  We said: no, you can’t do that. We eventually convinced them to move the site out to the center of the plaza.

What did you dislike about building against the portico?

Well, mainly because we didn’t want to do touch something that’s almost sacred.  We’re building something new.  We wanted to complement Union Station, but we didn’t want to be part of it. And we wanted it to look distinct. The intention was never to try to duplicate Union Station.

When you proposed moving the site did you get any pushback from DDOT or others?

Actually no.  Pretty much everyone agreed with us.

Have you been able to stay within your budget?

Well, there’s a lot of complexities with this project. You’re sitting on top of a metro tunnel that’s 18 inches below; so it’s a very delicate area. Plus, the client is DDOT.  Even a small building for a large agency such as DDOT has a very demanding process for contractors.  Yes, the cost of the building did grow, as is the case with many projects.

What was one of the biggest challenges you overcame in designing the transit center?

The big thing was simply that we were allowed to build a structure next to Union Station at all. We managed to get through all the agencies. Nobody had a problem with the design, and I think it’s because it wasn’t trying to look like the building next to it.

Why did you decide to make the building transparent?  Was it intentional that people walking by will be able to see through the structure to the bikes inside?

Yes, it’s meant to be kind of a display in itself. If we had our way, in fact, we would have made it completely transparent.  However, there’s always a conflict between transparency and trying to the heat of the August Sun out.  We spent a lot of time trying to find the right system for that.

What sort of system did you devise to address that problem? 

Well, for one thing the fritting varies as you move over the cross section of the building.  On the top of the roof, where the sun is highest, we shade the sunlight the most; there the glazing is about 75 percent. As you get down to the sides of the building the glaze goes down to 25 percent.

Overall, how would you characterize the building?

We literally were trying to do a non-building. We didn’t want to compete with Union Station at all. We didn’t want any vertical walls. It looks a bit like a ski bump.

Is there anything about the design of the building that makes you particularly proud?

It’s great that this is part of a bike system for DC. We’ve always had the attitude that you could build a piece of architecture that doesn’t compromise traditional architecture and still use all the latest technology, so it was also a chance to do that.

The design reminds me of the Metro stations. Was that intentional?

Not really. I think it’s more that there’s so little contemporary architecture in DC. It’s not that we’ve had terribly unyielding clients, but the architecture here tends to be traditional. The city really needs a nudge; we’re hoping this project delivers one.

If this is a nudge, as you say, what is it nudging toward?

I guess it’s not a nudge. It’s more an outright boot in the butt.

Who are you hoping will like the project most—bicyclists, Mayor Fenty, DDOT?

All of the above. I think bicyclists especially will feel some affinity to it because of the bicycle references [The center’s form is inspired partly by the arc of a bicycle wheel].

I’d guess that many cyclists, who may feel marginalized or pushed to the side of the road in some cases, will appreciate having a physical structure devoted to bicycles. 

Hopefully, it can serve as a real base for riders. We were trying to get LED monitors that could be used as information boards.  We’re hoping that eventually it will be a place that can host events for cyclists.

What aspects of the station would you consider green?

As much as possible, we tried to heat and ventilate the station through natural means. We use natural convection, louvers, shading, and other techniques.

Anything to stay about the steel tubes?  They’re quite impressive.

They’re twelve inch massive pipes. Really long tubes.  They’re the thing that lets the structure work. They don’t act like columns, so they can be comparatively thin. All the arches are in compression and the tie-rods are pinched, so you can really lighten up the structure.

How many bikes will the transit center hold?

It’s 150 now, but we might be able to get another 75 bikes on a third level of racks. The intent is to put rental bikes on the third level.

What were you were aiming for in the interior? 

Mainly, we were just trying to be efficient. How do you get the most bikes in a small space? It’s like a parking lot.  You want to double load your aisles. The racks are a double-height racks. You can tilt the top rack down, load it, and then push it up.

Would you in any sense consider yourself a bicycle evangelist?

Maybe not an evangelist, but I am convinced we need that need to change the way that we structure our cities.  We need smart development that, in part, involves making cities less dependent on the car. Most planners and and architects are talking about this, but this general public isn’t.

How do you convince society people to change their habits in this regard?

Smart growth isn’t just an economic thing.  A walkable and bikeable city is a safer city.  It’s a less congested city. It’s a more pleasant city.  It’s a healthier city.

Crossposted on DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner, which also has more slide shows of the transit center.