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See Subway Trains from the Surface of Market Street

Purple light shows a Muni subway heading inbound, while an M or (a Daly City BART train?) heads outbound…somewhere below. Image: Illuminate

Imagine standing on Market Street and seeing bars of colored lights move over the street, tracking the location of the BART and Muni vehicles below.

Yesterday evening, Illuminate, a San Francisco artists collaborative, held a demonstration of "Lightrail," a proposed project from artists George Zisiadis and Stefano Corazza, for Market Street. The demonstration, which was held in a space above The Hall at Market and 6th, was hosted by Ben Davis, the founder and CEO of Illuminate. By projecting video on all four walls of the space, they created a virtual-reality like experience of what it would be like to stand on Market Street with the proposed arts project already in place.

The artists want to suspend a string of LEDs, one on each side of Market Street, from One Market to Van Ness. The lights will be wired into the BART and Muni subway system computers, so they will change color and move with the trains; bars of light will appear to follow the trains below Market Street in real time. In effect, everyone will be able to see the movements of underground transit from the surface. It will be "celebrating mass transit on the civic spine," explained Davis. Jump to the bottom and take a look at the embedded video if you're having trouble visualizing what that would look like.

The upstairs demo room above the Hall on Market Street. Photo: Illuminate
The upstairs demo room above the Hall on Market Street. Photo: Illuminate

By the way, if that sounds a little ambitious for an arts project, these are the same people who installed the moving "Bay Lights" that now adorn the Bay Bridge.

Davis explained the philosophical underpinnings of the proposed "Lightrail" installation during his presentation. He showed old films of Market Street, before it was dominated by the automobile. It was, as he called it, a true "civic spine," where people walked freely among horse carts, bicycles, streetcars, and the occasional Model T. He also talked about the planner Jasper O'Farrell, the Irish engineer who designed Market Street to join the two street grids on either side, patterning it on Market Street in Philadelphia as a crossroads for the city. Davis then showed old photos of how the "Robert Moses inspired" Embarcadero and Central Freeways all-but ruined that vision until they were torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Tim Chan, with BART Planning and Development, snapped photos of the demo last night. Photo: Streetsblog
Tim Chan, with BART Planning and Development, snapped photos of the demo last night. Photo: Streetsblog

Davis's vision is to continue that transformation of Market Street back into an integrated civic space. The new lights would just be one component, reminding people on the surface of all the activity directly below. But, more importantly, he said he hoped one day that Market Street would be returned to pedestrians and bicycles. He even suggested that some day the mass of buses on Market Street, constantly jostling for position with bikes, taxis, and pedestrians, could be replaced by low-floor light rail vehicles using the existing F-line tracks.

It was a bold vision and one which gets to the core of the livable streets movement--are streets primarily for cars and transit vehicles? Or are some streets, at least, better suited as primarily elongated civic spaces, designed for people to enjoy, full of street trees, arts, and social interactions?

Over a century ago, Paris's Champs Elysee became world-famous in part through the use of gas lamps. Today, the Light-Emitting Diode, with its energy efficiency, rich colors, and the ability to control and animate them with computers, can turn Market Street into something truly amazing. Either way, San Francisco's main street could certainly benefit from more illumination. The rub will be whether or not the group can raise the money they need. They've currently raised $500,000 in seed funds--they need about $10 million more.

Still having trouble imagining what this would all look like? Illuminate posted this video to help explain how it would all work. Enjoy.

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