Thursday, March 25, 2010

Next Stop: Bikestation



Great buildings often serve to rouse us from our torpor; “WAKE UP! PAY ATTENTION!” No building does this more grandly than a great train station. Emerging into the grand hall of Union Station, the space is like a fanfare of trumpets announcing the king’s arrival. In the 1960s and 70s just as our cities fell into disrepair, so did many of their great train stations. Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station was torn down to make way for a modern sphincter of a train station. Our own Union Station was in jeopardy of a similar fate for many years. Washington was lucky to wake up from that fever dream with Union Station intact. Stations say volumes about the health of a city, more than a remote airport ever could. And so it is quite exciting that an important and beautiful new station has opened in Washington.


Last October, Washington’s first Bikestation opened at the west end of Union Station. Developed by Mobis Transportation Alternatives and designed by one of Washington’s most innovative architecture firms, KGP Design Studio, the diminutive, 1700 square foot kiosk has great ambitions: to remake Washington’s transportation infrastructure. This Bikestation, the first of its kind on the East Coast, is the beginning of what advocates hope will become a network of similar stations across the city.

You’ve heard these promises before—probably from a shabbily dressed, middle-aged man with granola stuck in his beard. But this time the message is delivered by Washington’s sexy, triathlete mayor. The Bikestation is not merely some utopian effort to reduce traffic, or our dependence on foreign oil, or the distance between our asscheeks—although it will accomplish all these.

The Bikestation solves what urban planners call the “last mile” problem. In New York, the average distance between subway stations is just over a half mile, about three Manhattan blocks. In Washington, because of building-height restrictions, our population is more spread out. Washington’s Metro was designed with a station every mile and a quarter, roughly the distance between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Most American’s won’t walk across the room to change the channel. The rule of thumb for planners is that American’s won’t walk more than quarter mile for anything. So this leaves much of DC hopelessly remote for anyone not behind the wheel of a car.

Enter the Bikestation. With covered parking spaces for 150 commuters’ bicycles, lockers, restrooms, changing rooms, and a small bike repair and rental shop, it contains everything one needs to travel that last mile, as long as that last mile is within a mile radius of Union Station. So if you’re headed to a Senate subcommittee hearing on the obesity epidemic in America, you can grab a bike at Union Station and pedal over in less time than it would take a cabbie to navigate the barricades on Capitol Hill.


Washington’s Bikestation is far more than a noble urban idea; it is also an exquisite jewel of a building. Waiting expectantly at the west end of Union Station’s grand beaux arts facade, it’s overturned prow, all glass and steel, looks like the Acela has pulled in on a side track. One boards the building midway along its fuselage, just a few dozen paces from the top of the Metro escalator. If the exterior is a glass boat, the inside is all boat too--unadorned steel structure and rigging. Its louvered hull of a roof is suspended by three massive steel keels spanning stem to stern. All the glass makes the interior feel larger than it appears from the outside.

Each of the glass louvers opens to allow breezes to wash through the building, carrying the sun’s heat away. The glass is fritted with white ceramic lines to reflect much of the sun’s heat away from the interior and reduce the greenhouse effect, a risky gambit in Washington’s August swelter. The building is certain to become an example of high-performance, passive sustainable design, but we won’t know for another few months whether it is an example of success or failure.

Nattering historic preservationists may be scandalized by this sleek object’s proximity to Daniel Burnham’s beaux arts masterpiece, but KGP’s strategy is straight from the National Trust’s playbook: make the new distinct from the old while respecting the scale of the historic building. From the west, looking at the broad side, the Bikestation looks strangely at home against the backdrop of Burham’s ornate portico. Tilted and curved, it takes a moment to realize that the west wall of the Bikestation echoes the exposed roof trusses on the end walls of Burnham’s unpretentious concourse building to the north of the more ornate main building.

Others will complain that the building’s $4 million budget is wildly overpriced considering a shipping container would have done the job. In fact, $3.2 million of the budget was funded by grants from the Federal Highway Administration, which views the project as a critical experiment to gauge the viability of bicycle transportation in American cities. Most other Bikestations—all on the west coast—are little more than sheds and reflect the attitudes of the car culture toward bicycling. This investment in this Bikestation gives Washington its best chance of establishing the bicycle as a critical facet of Washington’s transportation network.

As DC plans other Bikestations, we should hope that they continue to ennoble them with such great architecture. KGP’s building is not only a test case for bicycling in Washington, it is a test case for ambitious, modern, sustainable design in Washington. Hopefully both will succeed.

12 comments:

Melanie on Mar 25, 2010, 1:53:00 PM said...

That's really beautiful IMHO. I wish the metro canopies had this delicacy.

Colin on Mar 25, 2010, 2:08:00 PM said...

The country is going broke and federal funds are being used to build bikestations? Does anyone even use these ugly bikes? The next person I see on one will be the first. And why would you ride a bike from Union Station to a Congressional hearing? From Union Station to the Senate office buildings is a 5 minute walk.

Anonymous said...

Colin-- Are you serious? Each parking surface parking spot for cars costs $12K - $15K, and subterranean parking can cost as much as $50K per spot. This investment in bicycle infrastructure will encourage more people to bike which will: 1) reduce emissions, 2) reduce consumption of foreign oil, 3) reduce congestion for people who continue to drive, 4) improve health (obesity, respiratory disease, etc...).

The true outrage is the large surface parking lots for Senate staff right across the street from Union Station-- one of the most transit accessible locations in the DC region (perhaps the country).

Anonymous said...

The true outrage is the large surface parking lots for Senate staff right across the street from Union Station....

The true outrage is the Senate staff across the street that cannot part with their automobiles...

kavakos said...

According to the latest issue of Architectural Record (03.10, page 144), the building is 1,750 square feet and cost $2.4 million. That comes out to about $1,371.00 per square foot.

Yes, its a beautiful structure, but it fails two of the three principals 1st century Roman architect Vitruvius put forth for good architecture, which I think still hold true today. Vitruvius argued that good architecture must meet tests of "commodity, firmness and delight."

This structure, while delightful, is economically capricious to the point of being offensive (failing the commodity test). For those not in the building industry, by way of pricing comparison, a high end house of condo might cost $200 per square foot to construct, a mid priced museum might cost $600 per square foot (exclusive of exhibits). To spend $1,371 per square foot for a bike shelter is outrageous and not a judicious use of taxpayer resources (regardless of whether they originate from federal or local coffers).

Firmness refers to the characteristics of being well constructed and appropriately serving its purpose to protect the occupants from the elements, etc. On the firmness test the building also fails: Look at the frameless "windows" and you will see that many of them do not fully close, leaving the building exposed to the heat of summer and cold of winter and reliant upon excessive energy usage to condition the interior space.

At the end of the day, the bike station is a cool piece of sculpture, but also an underperforming and overly costly building. I'd like to know what rent MOBIS is paying to occupy the space, if any. It seems to me that they received essentially a taxpayer subsidized building and that the social good generated by the project is unlikely to match the resources expended to construct it.

Jenny on Mar 25, 2010, 4:32:00 PM said...

In reference to historic preservationists, I will not pass judgment on how appropriate the design is, but you have mistakenly referenced the National Trust as the keepers of preservation standards. The qualities you cite as those desired for new additions to historic buildings (i.e. differentiation and compatible massing, size, scale, and features) come from Standard 9 of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation. The National Park Service (instead of the Trust) has been designated by the Secretary as the keepers of these standards.

Anonymous said...

$4 million divided by 150 bicycle parking spaces comes to $26,666 per space. Outrageous!

Architectwannabe said...

Beg to differ that $200 per square foot gets you anything "high end". Concrete construction is more than that, with zero design.

David C on Mar 26, 2010, 12:07:00 AM said...

Kavakos, the article clearly states that the bike station has no heating or cooling, so it doesn't use energy for those. Also, it has more than 150 parking spaces. It also provides a store 40 external parking spaces and a store/mechanic area. So it is not $26,666 per space.

Anonymous said...

I like it, but it definitely should have been less than 4mil as it was being paid for by tax dollars. At that price, it will be the only of it's kind. At $1,371.00/ft, that's a bit hard to justify a large public investment. Private $$$ on public land, spend what you want. Saying the extra cost was done for energy savings is an insult. An inefficient 1k/month heat/cooling bill + 10k/yr maintenance takes a long time to make up (45 yrs for the 1st mil)

For tax dollars, I would have preferred 8 of these around the city at .5mil each. (I'm sure that price would still get you a nice bike station)

David C on Mar 27, 2010, 1:45:00 AM said...

It wasn't on private land. It was on public land. The Federal government owns the land. And while you might be able to build one for less (Chicago's cost $3.2 million) where would you put it. DC built it there because they were offered the land for free. So right off the bat, they're going to have to buy land.

A-lo on Mar 29, 2010, 10:38:00 AM said...

It's like an alien parked his space ship pod next to Union Station before he caught his train.

I'll take a beautiful and lasting design over cheap and ugly that will be rebuilt in 10 years.

 

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