Courtesy of flicker userPeople in the tech world always talk about “iterating” – a process by which a solution is tried, tested, and improved upon incrementally until the best solution is found.  It’s a useful and efficient process, specifically suitable to tech companies.  The technology they create (and use) is fast and has been developed precisely for this type of rapid prototyping. Unfortunately, this sense of urgency and precision hasn’t really made its way to urban service innovation.  While we at Living Labs Global are focused on Showcasing the start-ups and side projects that are moving in this direction, we don’t often see city agencies or municipalities embracing it in quite the same way.  Granted, bus route scheduling and neighborhood development planning doesn’t exactly lend itself to rapid prototyping, but still there is definite potential for improvement in the speed with which we produce urban service innovation.

That’s why I’ve been excited with a project going on in San Francisco over the last year or so.  Market Street is San Francisco’s central boulevard – at least, it should be.  It runs diagonally through the center of the City, dividing two major grid systems and connecting the hills of the West to the Bay in the East.  Because of its central location and ability to connect so many parts of the City, it has suffered from overcrowding – the corridor contains one streetcar line, multiple bus lines, two separate underground train systems, taxis, bicyclists, delivery vehicles, tourist buses, and private vehicles, not to mention the extremely wide swath of sidewalk carrying countless pedestrians daily.  The street clearly had/has a problem that could be, at least partially, solved by redesign.

And, what is redesign without iterating?  San Francisco decided to do things a little differently this time.  Starting in September of 2009, the City implemented a few trials to collect data on the traffic effects caused by isolated changes.  First, private vehicles were forced to turn right at two intersections heading eastward.  This freed up road space for transit and bicycles.  Within weeks, the City saw that one particular intersection was poorly designed for the interaction between cars and bicycles that this change produced.  So, they moved the forced right turn to another intersection.  Since then, multiple other changes have been added on top of the first, including separated bike lanes, green-painted bike lanes, and public art installations, in order to improve the overall experience of Market St.

At this stage, it appears that this method – trial and error – is leading San Francisco to a better Market Street, supported by real data.  Would you expect anything else from such a tech-loving city?

Signing off, Terra Curtis

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