Musical Traffic Lights, And Other Street Projects That Made San Franciscans Look Up From Their Phones

The city’s Market Street Prototyping Festival featured over 50 creative installations that were hard to ignore.

Walking down the street these days, you’re more likely to encounter people talking into or staring at their smartphones than genuine human interaction. For three days in April, however, that wasn’t true for a slice of San Francisco.


The city’s Market Street, a main downtown thoroughfare, hosted over 50 playful projects as part of the Market Street Prototyping Festival, a venue for artists and designers to show how public installations can improve quality of life. Many of the projects will eventually become permanent.

The festival was divided into different districts running along Market St. The “anchor project” in the Embarcadero district was Knock Stop Music, an installation that turns traffic lights into musical instruments.

Autodesk Line//Shape//Space

Created by Daily tous les jours, an interaction design studio in Montreal, the project was incubated at Autodesk’s Pier 9 workshop, a wonderland of 3-D printers and fabrication tools (Autodesk also made software available to all the prototyping teams).

I met Melissa Mongiat, the co-founder of Daily tous les jours, at Autodesk the day before Knock Stop Music went live. The project’s cardboard boxes, sprawled across a room, didn’t yet look like much. But its creation required all sorts of tools, including 3-D printers, waterjets, and lasers.

“We’re used to our structures being permanent, but because it’s a three-day festival, the structural elements are made out of cardboard,” says Mongiat.

Autodesk Line//Shape//Space

The team placed their mocked-up traffic lights on opposite sides of the street. Passersby could interact with each other by knocking on the light’s post, creating harmonic music in the process. Each post played two notes at a time; one side of the street had more synthetic-sounding instruments, while one had more analog instruments.


While Mongiat and her co-workers all have design experience, the vast majority of projects in the festival came from teams with no background in professional art.

Other interesting projects include Ember, a circle of wooden seats that double as instruments; Data Lanterns, a series of lights that glow when trains are arriving; and Emoti Bricks, a compostable street theater made out of mushrooms.

The prototype festival is part of San Francisco’s Better Market Street project, a $400 million large-scale redesign of the street. Approximately 10 to 12 of the prototyping festival projects will be selected as permanent installations on Market Street.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.