Free Wheelin'

Free Wheelin'

Consider this paradox: The Washington, D.C. region has some of the nation’s worst traffic—but according to the latest American Community Survey, it also has the sixth highest rate of bicycle commuting, with some 87,500 people relying on bikes as their primary means of transportation. In early October, the D.C. government took a big step forward when it opened the first publicly accessible, stand-alone bicycle storage and rental facility on the East Coast.


The $4 million Bicycle Transit Center is neatly wedged on a traffic island between two Daniel Burnham masterpieces, the National Postal Museum and Union Station. The facility offers storage for 150 bikes, changing rooms, and a rental and repair space. Riders can park their bikes at the facility for $1 a day and have access between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.; for $100 a year, they get 24-hour access.

“I really see the bike station almost as a monument to bicycling and one that shows that bicycling is here to stay in D.C.,” said Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Just as striking as its range of services is its design: The fritted glass walls are draped with tensioned 80-foot steel tubes, which bow outward from concrete bases at either end, drawing comparisons to half a football, a bicycle helmet, and Captain Nemo’s submarine.

“The plan is somewhat dictated by traffic patterns, which gave us the need to taper it at the north end and the south, where we wanted to minimize sight lines,” said Don Paine, principal at KGP Design Studio, which designed the center (80 percent of which was federally funded).

But aesthetics were important as well—the client required a design that was at once iconic but not intrusive to its Beaux-Arts surroundings. “It was important that we did something to complement the buildings,” said James Sebastian, manager for the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program. “We couldn’t just have a shed.”

The 1,700-square-foot facility is operated under a lease by Bikestation, a Long Beach, California–based firm. Bikestation also operates similar facilities in Seattle, Santa Barbara, Palo Alto, and Long Beach.

The station is part of a larger pro-cycling strategy for the region. There are already 40 miles of bike lanes in Washington and over 100 miles of dedicated bike trails around the city, with another dedicated bike trail underway to link the Capitol Hill area with the Maryland suburbs. Washington is also planning to expand its SmartBike program, in which riders can rent bicycles from racks set up around the city.

Though it’s too early for reliable statistics on usage at the transit center, Sebastian said he’s been inundated with anecdotal success stories. “There’s a lot of walk-up interest,” he said. “I was there the other day and a family who didn’t know anything about it came in, and by the time I left they had all rented bikes.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 18_11.04.2009.