Better Market Street

Project information
San Francisco, USA
San Francisco Department of Planning and Transportation

I believe in the role of public spaces as one of the critical pieces of our public infrastructure that brings people together.

Neil Hrushowy
Manager, City Design Group, San Francisco Planning Department
Societal Challenge

Moving through Market Street 

America’s downtowns are often packed with commuter traffic during the day and emptied out at night, making them both hectic, overcrowded, yet isolating and unsafe: eroding the potential for an enriching human experience and vibrant public life in a key urban district. These issues require consideration from both placemaking teams, key stakeholder groups, and community members to reconsider the central city streets and transit.

Client Challenge

A road dominated by cars

San Francisco’s Market Street is a transit workhorse and it’s arguably San Francisco’s largest and most important public space. Yet, it is perceived as deserted, with few alternative activities to transit and minimal invitations to engage with the street. The City of San Francisco aimed to promote communication and collaboration in a space that once lacked any room for life and movement.

In order to improve transit speed and reliability, as well as prioritize high quality conditions for pedestrians and climate-positive cyclists, Market Street was in need of a cultural transformation.

Market Street was perceived as abandoned, devoid of vibrant options, and lacking opportunities to connect with the bustling street.

The Impact

Prototyping public life for long term change

To understand how people move through, use, and perceive the character and invitations of Market Street, Gehl conducted a Public Space Public Life survey (PSPL). The team gathered input from local communities through public hearings, workshops and lectures, and used the results to re-frame the conversation, focused on the creation of a 21st-Century main street, not just a transportation solution.

In 2015, Gehl called upon designers, artists and makers to develop and test ideas to enliven the sidewalk along Market Street and attract public life. Over three days, 50 prototypes were installed along Market Street and over three days approximately 300,000 people were engaged. The results revealed how drastically Market Street’s character changed during the event and made it clear that invitations for public life could invigorate the street, specifically targeting times when it otherwise begins to feel empty.

These pilot projects allowed people to experience new uses of the street in real-time, and their responses contributed to the ultimate design concept. In 2019, a new streetscape design complete with the integration of street life zones, grade separated bicycle lanes, private vehicle access prohibition, improved transit services for buses and streetcars and overall improvements to public space safety and accessibility, was approved by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors. Through engagement, effective transit options and relevant programming, Gehl’s efforts as lead urban designer repositioned Market Street as a civic, cultural, and economic center radically repositioning biking, bringing vibrant public life to the street and offering renewed opportunities for retail in San Francisco. As of January 2020, San Francisco’s Market Street finally became car-free — a much anticipated moment that removed private vehicle access from 2.2 miles of Market Street.

The Prototyping Festival in 2015 imagined interventions to encourage people to meet and enjoy Market Street in new ways.

The prototypes included a climbing wall, creative twirling seating, an exercise loop, a habitat for wildlife, a mobile selfie booth, a disaster preparedness unit, a ping-pong tournament, interactive fountains, and much more.

The character of Market Street changed drastically during the Prototyping Festival. Not only did pedestrian activity increase overall, but lingering activity increased by over 50% on weekdays and almost 200% on weekends, indicating that invitations for public life could invigorate Market Street precisely at the times when it otherwise begins to feel empty.

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Partner & Managing Director Gulf Region, Chief Innovation Officer
Jeff Risom
Mayra Madriz
Partner, Head of Climate, Team Director US Enterprise & Corporations
Blaine Merker
Team Director US Cities
Anna Muessig
Our services

Delivering impact through a multidisciplinary approach

Urban Strategy

Urban Strategy is the foundation upon which form, function and behaviour are created. Our holistic approach always starts with asking what life should exist in place, what spaces invite for that life, and what buildings and facilities support this. People and life first, always.

& Mobility

Mobility is a key driver of urban transformation and quality of life. By approaching transportation and mobility challenges from a people-first perspective we help clients prioritize the human experience in everything from city-wide strategies to street corner improvements.