To celebrate completion of the $224 million expansion of downtown Miami's elevated transit system -- the Metromover -- county officials in late May threw open the gates: free rides for everyone until September 30. The penurious and the curious alike have had a chance to experience the high-tech, automated system and its extended reach north to the Omni neighborhood and south over the Miami River to the Brickell area.
But for some riders the experience has been less than positive, especially if they needed to get from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time. Glitches in the sophisticated computer system that operates Metromover have led to shutdowns that have lasted as long as an hour. The problems became so aggravating that this past Saturday the Metro-Dade Transit Agency closed the entire Metromover system to replace a balky switch suspected of causing the trouble.
However, one electronic innovation has worked perfectly, and has drawn plaudits from a demanding ridership: the recorded voice of Wendy Ruch. The opening of the Metromover extensions marked Ruch's final victory over her predecessor, the much maligned "Darth Vader," the epithet riders have taken to using for the digitized voice of male authority that icily commanded them to "Please stand clear of the doors. Hold on while the train is departing." The Vader voice, which reigned supreme over Metromover since its opening in April 1986, has virtually vanished, ushered out of the system by the more soothing, humane Ruch.
Riders have been left to speculate about the change. Was it yet another victory for women in the power struggle between the sexes? Or was it simply a transportation-industry fashion statement? Pittsburgh resident Ruch (pronounced ruck) is diplomatically evasive in her response. "It's a voice of gentle guidance," she says. "Maybe it is less harsh than a male voice."
Ruch works in the public relations department of AEG Westinghouse, which builds the Metromover cars. Her job as the anonymous announcer was a matter of serendipity. One day earlier this year the guys in Westinghouse's voice-systems department walked by her desk and casually asked if she would read a few of the messages they were preparing for Miami's expanded Metromover. According to Ruch, it was no big deal, though it was a departure from the industry's tradition of relying on disembodied masculinity. Sexual equality, however, was not an explicit impetus.
Metro-Dade Transit Agency officials also say the change has nothing to do with feminism, just customer service. The automated voices on Metromover cars and at Metrorail stations became an issue because riders made it one, as they do with nearly anything. "Our passengers pay attention to everything, believe me," notes Roosevelt Bradley, chief of the agency's rail traffic control. "Whenever we have a delay on the system, someone wants to know exactly what is wrong."
The agency maintains a steady dialogue with its riders over the blue information phones in the stations and even the emergency phones on rail and mover cars. For example, during rush hour, when the Metromover trams are supposed to be arriving every 90 seconds on the inner loop, even a 30-second delay can bring a flood of calls from the stations, Bradley says. If one of the two air-conditioning units at either end of a car should fail, riders are on the phone to complain. Then there was the photographer who was in a snit when he called. He'd climbed down onto the tracks, focused, and expected "the driver" to stop the car before it hit him. "He was upset that the driver didn't stop because he didn't know there was no human driver," Bradley recalls with amusement.
But it has been Darth Vader who has made regular Metromover passengers really cranky. "They call from the station and they pick up the emergency phone on the car and they want to know: 'Why is there a male voice? A female voice is better,'" says Bradley. The sinister vocalization was twisted into bits by a computer, which sometimes made comprehension difficult. And the bloodless tone, also the result of being run through a computer, lent it a robotic monotony. The groundswell of complaints convinced transit officials to give a female voice a try.
The phones have been ringing with approval since Ruch's debut in May. Her higher-pitched natural voice is friendlier and easier to hear. "It's almost like choosing the bass or treble on your stereo," says Danny Alvarez, the agency's deputy director.
An authentic female voice up against a computer-generated male counterpart may not seem like a fair contest. But even a genuinely human male voice has been a loser with riders. After complaints from riders, the transit agency three years ago yanked recorded Metrorail announcements by King Elliot, a transit agency employee whose platform messages about approaching trains had been featured at all stations since the Metrorail system opened in 1984.
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Officials decided to experiment by using a female voice for northbound trains. Riders immediately began complimenting the woman, a professional announcer hired for the test. It looked like male dominance was about to become a thing of the past for Metro Transit, but passengers gave Elliot a reprieve: They wanted to keep him for southbound trains. Alvarez explains, "They said, 'When we hear a female, we know it's northbound, and a male means it's southbound,' so we left it that way."
Could the complaints be the result of a secret conspiracy among feminist riders? A nervous Alvarez demurs on any question of sexual politics. "We don't keep track of our customers by gender," he says. "Our customers are our customers, whoever they are. We don't ask questions."
Wendy Ruch says she is surprised to hear about the acclaim over her platform performance for Metromover. Miami is the only city playing her voice, but she's ready for a revolution. "Maybe from now on, all the voices will be women," she offers. "That would be wonderful.