"I'm sorry, Davisville, I'm afraid I can't do that."
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.




“I’m sorry, Davisville, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Although they have not yet replaced the members of Local 113 as the operators of our subways, soulless automatons have recently begun speaking on their behalf. If you’ve ridden on the Yonge-University-Spadina line more than once in the past month, you may have wondered whether your fate and that of one particular subway conductor have become intertwined, as you seem to board her train every single time. More likely, you’ve realized that the TTC has finally gotten around to fulfilling its obligation under the Ontario Human Rights Code, as determined by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO), to “provide reliable, consistent, audible subway station stop announcements.”
Read more after the fold.

Toronto lawyer, and founding president of the Canadian Association for Visually Impaired Lawyers, David Lepofsky, C.M., who had been attempting to get the TTC to implement these accessibility measures for twenty years, thought the matter had been settled in 1995, when the TTC seemed to have finally agreed to make such announcements. But, as the Honourable Alvin B. Rosenberg, Q.C., wrote in his September 2005 HRTO decision:

After the TTC agreed to have the subway stops announced Lepofsky wrote to the TTC urging them to commence subway stop announcements. TTC in their defence argued that the words “to commence subway stop announcements” amounted to an agreement that they could fulfill their obligations by the mere commencing of the subway stop announcements.
Lepofsky explained the wording in the letter and denied that there was any agreement that the TTC could fulfill their obligations under the agreement by the mere commencement of subway stop announcements. It was clear to everyone that the commencing of subway stop announcements accomplished nothing and that until the subway stop announcements were audible, reliable and consistent, the patrons could not rely on them and accordingly their needs were not accommodated.

Three months prior to releasing his decision, Justice Rosenberg issued a strongly-worded Interim Order instructing the TTC to have its staff immediately begin making announcements in a particular fashion – “call out each subway stop twice, first when leaving the previous station (e.g. ‘Bloor leaving Bloor station’), and again, when arriving at the next stop (e.g. ‘St. George arriving at St. George station’)” – and to hold “educational seminars” for them, emphasizing the critical importance of doing so. The Commission, however, had already approved in 2003 a $2 million program to create an automated system to be installed on all subways lines and the SRT by the end of 2007, according to the September 2005 Status Report (the most recent available online) on the TTC’s Accessible Transit Services Plan. The technology, piloted on the Sheppard line earlier this year, has now been installed on the whole of the Y.-U.-S. line.
An article in this past Sunday’s Star allowed acting general manager of operations Rick Cornacchia to articulate for what it was they were looking in a recorded voice: “I’ve ridden on a number of different subways in different cities, and the interesting thing is that the voice is always similar: clear, straightforward and business-like.” Having auditioned a number of employees, the TTC settled on the currently-anonymous woman whose voice “was the most pleasant.”
But similar to the readability vs. aesthetics dichotomy of the city’s new street signs, accessibility may have come at the cost of exorcising creativity and imagination from what had been the last refuge of free expression for the employees of the TTC. Not that these things need necessarily be mutually exclusive, however, as Matt Blackett suggested in a legendary thread on the Spacing Wire (which the Star paraphrases):

“If the TTC does ever go the automated route, I’d like to suggest they get a mix of local residents and local celebrities to do the name calling. Jow Bowen (or a Foster Hewiit impersonator) could do College St in memory the Maple Leaf Gardens, the mayor do Queen for City Hall, Mike Myers and Jim Carey for the RT stops.” [sic]

Many commenters on the Wire, and implicitly the Star’s Andrew Chung, seem quite fond of this idea and variations of it, but although no one doubts the quality of celebrity diction, one must wonder how “consistent” such announcements might be, as they would presumably require one to listen for a different voice at each station.
The majority of the thread’s comments, however, were nostalgic recollections of the funniest, loveliest, scariest, and most uplifting things readers had ever heard subway, bus, and streetcar operators utter over their PA systems. (I’ve gotten considerable mileage out of my comment: the National Post extensively quoted it, saying that I “had enough [stories] for an entire column;” the aforementioned Star story excerpts it as well.)
So now as the TTC moves to extend the automated announcements to all of its subway, bus, and streetcar lines by 2008, let us hope that the Commissioners take note that Douglas Rain is alive and living only a short train ride away.
Original photo by alad1n from the Torontoist Flickr Pool, photoshopped by me, using an image from Jeff’s Robots.