I noticed a strange woman getting personal on Saturday. I was on Seattle’s marvelous light rail system, heading to the airport—cost me all of $3 from downtown to Delta. That’s insane.
New York City may be the queen of public transportation but you can’t get a subway straight to any of its airports these days, and when you still could—back in the late 20th century—the $5 fare would cost you nearly $14 in 2017 dollars. Plus, the stop where I boarded the light rail, underneath Nordstrom’s flagship store, looked less like a subway station than a hotel ballroom with a train running through it. Swear to God; it even had chandeliers.
But the strange woman. Okay, so she wasn’t talking directly to me, but she was presuming an unwarranted degree of familiarity with all of us. In New York, you’re lucky if you can hear the conductor barking the name of the station: “Christopher Street!” If you’ve got an exceptionally polite conductor, they might add “next” before they order you to “stand clear of the closing doors.” In Seattle, the conductor not only tells you what station you’re approaching, but what side of the train to exit. “SeaTac Airport Station is the next stop. Exit to my left.”
“…to my left.”
That’s what got me: “my left.” Because the nice lady with the impeccable diction doesn’t have a “left.” Or a right. Or a body at all. Seattle’s light rail is fully automated, except for the occasional clerk wandering the train, checking to make sure everyone has a ticket. The lady getting personal with all of us was a computer-generated voice. Only a slight digital pause gave her away—well, that and my local friend had explained the system to me when we took the train to see the Mariners steamroll my poor beleaguered Mets last week.
A couple of years ago, Vice published a fairly comprehensive who’s who of urban mass transit announcers. Of course, Seattle’s digital lady is not among them. Because she doesn’t exist.
I found a Q&A thread of Seattle-ites (Seattalians?) wondering about their transit voice. A user named “vdcidet” also found the conductor’s word choice overly personal:
Light rail modified the voice not to long ago. It is 1000x better. It was all “fake nice sing songy” like the spokeswoman that only lasted a few years for the local mattress company (can’t recall what company but those commercials drove me insane). Now it is a little cooler but still tries to be Star Trek (not doors to “my” right…).
Look, any transit system that builds subway stops like ballrooms is okay by me. But spare me Artificial Intelligence with a personal touch. I don’t know about the Star Trek analogy, but it is pretty creepy.
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Also published on Medium.