The voice of the streetcar

December 19, 2019

There are lots of things I like about Toronto’s new Bombardier streetcars. They are low-floor. They have marvellous windows, and if you are lucky enough to get a seat, you get a picture window view of the cityscape as you travel.

The female computer voice that announces the stops, however, is an abomination. The voice sounds cold and heartless and aloof and just generally like she is from out of town. We inhabit a world full of machines and web interfaces and online shopping. Most of us spend our days staring at illuminated screens that give us more stress than joy. Is it too much to ask that, as we stand pressed cheek by jowl on the overcrowded transit system, we have a warm, human voice calling out the stops along the route?

When I first moved to Toronto in the mid-1990s, streetcar, bus and subway drivers called out all the stops – it was one of their jobs. Then the Toronto Transit Commission automated the system. Cheryl Bomé, a 42-year-old administrative assistant at the TTC (according to a 2006 story by Jeff Gray in the Globe and Mail) recorded each of the system’s 10,000 stops. I believe that on the buses and the old streetcars, as well as the subway, one still hears Bomé’s voice.

But for some reason, we have to listen to this tinny computer voice on the new streetcars. This is not progress. The other night I was coming home on the 501 streetcar on Queen Street. I got off at Beaconsfield, in front of the Drake Hotel. Except that the computerized voice on the streetcar pronounced it “Bee-Aye-Cns-Fuld.” On top of being cold and impersonal, this is just useless. It’s the wrong way to say the name. The computers as far as I can tell are shitty technology that do their jobs poorly.

Toronto is a city of immigrants. If new arrivals hear these bastardizations of our street names, are they going to believe that these are the correct pronunciations?

Simply put, a human can do a better job of calling out the streets. I am all for going back to the old system, where the driver announces the stops. Then we get the benefit of all the wonderful accents from the TTC’s delightfully multi-ethnic workforce. If that won’t fly, at least please bring back Bomé. She has a lovely voice.