The coming of the automobile resulted in new building types that met the needs of
motorized America, such as the filling station and motor lodge. In the early 20th century,
the arrival of bus travel also initiated the construction of a new building type, the bus
terminal. Although the architectural style of bus terminals has changed dramatically since
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their development in the early 1930s, their function and general program has remained
Early bus terminals typically included features found in rail stations, such as waiting
areas and ticket offices; however, some architects viewed bus terminals as mysterious
new building types that required analysis and evaluation. In the 1930s, seemingly
rudimentary suggestions about bus terminal design were available from magazines such
as The Architectural Record and The Architectural Forum.
Unlike rail stations, however, early bus terminals also required a loading
balcony or platform to reach the rooftop luggage racks. By the late 1930s,
buses had luggage compartments below the cabin floor, thus removing the
need for loading balconies. Nonetheless, bus stations had to incorporate
properly designed platforms that could accommodate several arriving and
departing buses per day. As a result, the creation of a functional bus
platform was a key concern for many architects. Contemporary
professional magazines such as The A rchitectural F orum illustrated different types of bus
platforms for uncertain architects.
Greyhound bus station, in the
streamlined art moderne style, Louisville,
These early-20th-century platform
designs, such as the island- and-wheel types, continue to be used with contemporary bus terminals.
Architects of early-20th-century bus terminals employed a style that was consciously
different from rail stations. During this period, some architects believed that bus travel
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could assert its viability through a standardized architectural presence with value as an
advertising medium. The desire for stylistic uniformity resulted in the use of an art
moderne or “streamlined” style, a manner influenced by contemporary industrial designs.
From 1930 to 1950, most American bus stations employed the common elements of art
moderne (or Deco), such as curved corners, semicircular window bays, and smooth
surfaces. Like trains and automobiles, streamlined bus stations also used aerodynamic
movement and efficient, modern services: a new dynamic building for a new dynamic
form of travel. The New York Terminal for the Greyhound Lines (1935) is an excellent
example of this newly developed building type and correlative imagery. Designed by
Thomas W.Lamb, its curved walls, wraparound facade, rounded windows, and sleek
materials epitomized bus terminal architecture in the early and mid-20th century.
Despite the bus terminal’s clean, modern style, delays due to traffic and road
conditions compromised its efficiency, and poor maintenance and clumsy designs
undermined its appeal. Soon, bus stations were considered dark, dank, and inefficient
shelters that catered to passengers “who are automatically marked down as second class
citizens” (Dawson, 2000). In the second half of the 20th century, bus terminals lost their
streamlined style but retained their dreary quality.
During the mid-20th century, attempts were made to transform the bus terminal’s
image from an uninviting and dangerous place to a modern and safe transit center. As a
result, many bus terminals began incorporating expansive bus platform canopies that
sheltered open, well-lit, and safe spaces. These elaborate canopies, which were normally
supported by daring and intricate truss designs, achieved a sculptural quality and were
sometimes the principal means of architectural expression. For example, New York
City’s George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal (1962), designed by Pier Luigi Nervi,
was an early bus terminal to implement a dramatic and expressive trussed roof.
Unfortunately, the waiting areas did not receive the same type of innovative architectural
Despite new canopy designs, bus terminals continued to be considered inhospitable
and troublesome buildings. During the last two decades of the 20th century, however,
several efforts were made to infuse a sense of safety and modernity to a formerly
lackluster building type. Again, one of the hallmarks of contemporary bus terminals is a
light and expressive canopy that is supported by an extravagant truss system.
Nevertheless, current terminals are also characterized by waiting areas that are simpler
and rely on an extensive use of glass. A recent example is the bus terminal for the North
Greenwich Interchange (1997). Designed by Foster and Partners, the dominant feature is
a sweeping birdlike canopy supported by a forest of metal, treelike members. The
dramatic roof slopes to enclose a waiting area that the architects emphasized as an
uncluttered and “safe, user-friendly environment” (Baillieu, 1998).
Terminals that need to fit within an existing urban fabric sometimes become part of
mixed-use facility. These types of terminals typically resemble a commercial building
more than a high-volume transit center. The Laredo Transit Center (1999) in Laredo,
Texas, is a contemporary example of a mixed-use facility that had to conform to the
city’s urbanism and face a historic town square. Here, the Laredo Transit Center’s
unassuming facade hides a bus station (which serves local and longdistance passengers),
a parking garage, and 16,000 square feet of rentable office space.
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Mixed-use bus terminals have been built in urban centers around the world since the
1930s. Similarly, although the architectural style of bus terminals has changed since the
early 20th century, the needs and functions have remained the same. Nonetheless, with a
renewed dedication to constructing efficient and safe bus terminals, many cities will
continue to witness this venerable building type.