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  • Research Notes: Design for MobilityIntercity Bus Terminals in the Puget Sound Region
  • Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (bio) and David A. Rash (bio)

Intercity buses were significant in transportation networks serving American cities and towns during much of the twentieth century. Bus terminals were once an important building type, an element of the vernacular urban landscape. In the twentieth century, intercity buses offered a new form of mobility, and bus terminals showed how this new technology was manifested in place, both architecturally and urbanistically. American architectural journals occasionally published designs for bus terminals along with other types of transportation facilities.1 Yet surprisingly little scholarship has been published about this building type.2 Part of the reason for the lack of attention is that bus companies only occasionally employed leading architects and built facilities that were recognized for design achievement.3

In recent years, evidence of this part of American urban and architectural history has begun to disappear, making the story of bus terminals more difficult to uncover. Daniel Bluestone notes the buildings historians choose to analyze are often the ones that are preserved. In turn, buildings by their presence, or absence, are often included in, or omitted from, the histories that scholars choose to address.4 The investigation of a building type will draw attention to it, but the absence of examples may make its detailed study unachievable. With the increasing demolition of bus terminals, it becomes harder to understand their forms and contributions to the urban landscape.

This essay begins to fill this gap by exploring this building type as it developed in the Puget Sound region. In the early twentieth century, entrepreneurs established independent bus companies in markets that were not well served by steam railroads and electric interurban lines. Early bus companies were most competitive in areas of the United States that grew rapidly in the first decades of the twentieth century—places where rail networks were relatively incomplete, including parts of Minnesota, Texas, California, and the Pacific Northwest.5 Because the Puget Sound region was one of the places where bus transportation developed rapidly, examining bus stations here offers an opportunity to discuss the development of bus terminals over more than half a century while also suggesting some ways in which the changing fortunes of bus companies shaped the form, style, and location of bus terminals (Figure 1). We hope this regional study presents a typology that may support additional examinations of these understudied buildings nationally.

Buildings for Intercity Bus Transportation: Program and Design

Intercity bus transportation in the United States began with many small operators. Unlike conventional railroads or electric interurbans, bus companies did not need to invest significantly in costly infrastructure, because the construction and improvement of roads were understood as a public or governmental responsibility.6 The first federal aid to highways legislation was enacted in 1916, and state and local governments also approved funding for roads and highways. By the late 1910s, improvements allowed for the initiation of the intercity trucking and bus industries. [End Page 67]

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Figure 1.

Advertisement on opening of Central Stage Terminal, Seattle, Washington, 1927. This map shows the extensive intercity bus route network that linked western Washington State. From Seattle Times, September 10, 1927.

[End Page 68]

Early bus lines typically provided service between major cities and nearby towns and villages. The industry grew rapidly, and by the mid- to late 1920s, bus lines linked most major cities. The threshold for entry into the market for intercity bus service was low, as capital investment was restricted to the costs of buses (called "stages" in the early years) plus limited passenger and maintenance facilities. Unlike both conventional railroads and interurban electric lines, bus operators could easily change their routes, and this flexibility initially allowed bus companies to respond quickly to competition and to expand service to towns and villages not well served by rail.7

The 1920s witnessed significant growth of intercity bus transport, especially as interurban electric railway ridership began to decline after 1919.8 Although most early bus companies served local or regional markets and remained small, some companies began to offer long-distance service through agreements with other...


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