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Slugging — The People’s Transit

• March 07, 2011 • 5:00 AM

In Washington, D.C., commuters have taken thousands of cars off highways via a homegrown rideshare system known as “slugging.” Can the government create more slugs — without stepping on any?

Workers who have come down from the surrounding high-rise offices begin to line up on a sidewalk in downtown Arlington, Va., across the Potomac from the nation’s capital, about 3:30 in the afternoon. They stand in a perfect queue, iPods and newspapers in hand, and they look, by all indications, like they’re waiting for the bus.

Public transit never shows. But, eventually, a blue Chrysler Town & Country does. The woman behind the wheel rolls down her window and yells a kind of call-and-response.

“Horner Road?”

“Horner Road?” repeats the first woman in line.

“Horner Road!”

And two women get in the van, heading, presumably, for Horner Road. Several more cars pull up: a Ford Explorer, a Toyota Camry, a Saturn minivan. Each collects a pair of passengers and pulls out past the intersection for the on-ramp onto State Route 110, which leads three miles to the south, past the Pentagon and onto Interstate 395/95 and its glorious 28 miles of uninterrupted, controlled-access, high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

The queue of cars eventually backs up around the corner, and the line of passengers on the sidewalk ebbs. In a few minutes, the balance shifts again. Within half an hour, nearly 50 cars will have come through, capped by a dusty Ford F-250 pickup truck.

“I don’t care where we go,” yells the driver. “I just need two people!”

March-April 2011 Miller-McCune And off the three go toward the highway — and the suburbs — complete strangers, with not the least concern for personal safety, trying to shave 20 or 30 minutes, maybe more, off their afternoon trip home. “People are cooperating … to commute?” says Marc Oliphant, underscoring the novelty of what is going on here. “It’s like the opposite of road rage!”

Oliphant has brought a dozen local and federal transportation officials to the sidewalk here to gawk at the commuters. No one would believe this sight unseen: People here have created their own transit system using their private cars. On 13 other corners, in Arlington and the District of Columbia, more strangers — Oliphant estimates about 10,000 of them every day — are doing the same thing: “slugging.”

Their culture exists almost nowhere else. San Francisco has a similar casual-carpooling system, and there’s a small one in Houston. But that’s it. Even in D.C., slugging exists along only one of the city’s many arteries, I-95 and 395, where the nation’s first HOV lanes were completed in 1975.

Every morning, these commuters meet in park-and-ride lots along the interstate in northern Virginia. They then ride, often in silence, without exchanging so much as first names, obeying rules of etiquette but having no formal organization. No money changes hands, although the motive is hardly altruistic. Each person benefits in pursuit of a selfish goal: For the passenger, it’s a free ride; for the driver, a pass to the HOV lane, and both get a faster trip than they would otherwise. Even society reaps rewards, as thousands of cars come off the highway.

“To me,” marvels Oliphant, a facilities planner with the Navy, “it’s an illustration of the ideal for government.”

He’s drawn to slugging as a creative vision that would begin to ease the eternal mess of urban gridlock. Society always reaches first for the infrastructure fix — the costly highway expansion, the new route for the metro rail. But what if government could just nudge more people to do what they’ve done here, creating their own commuting cure within the existing system? Federal Highway Administration studies suggest that free-flowing traffic can be restored on a clogged highway simply by removing 10 percent of its cars.

To get more drivers into a self-sustaining casual carpool, though, officials would have to confront slugging’s built-in complication. They’d have to figure out how to stimulate slugging elsewhere without spoiling its defining feature: Government is not involved, or at least it looks not to be.

Slugging — The People’s Transit from Miller-McCune on Vimeo.

Oliphant, a trim and animated 30-year-old, spent six months on loan from the Navy last year thinking about just this question as a Federal Highway Administration transportation policy fellow. He began studying slugs three years earlier for a master’s thesis at Virginia Tech. (“Slugging is not most interesting for what it can teach about carpooling,” he wrote, but rather for the trust among strangers it requires and its leaderless organization. “Slugging is a contradiction to the everyday culture of America.”)

“Whenever I meet someone new, all I have to do is ask about their commute, which I’m often very interested in,” he says. “And I get an immediate emotional response. Especially for people in urban areas, it’s like this universal problem. No one likes how they get to work.”

Including him. He used to bike from his home in Virginia to his office at the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington. But last summer was even hotter than the usual D.C. steam bath, and his new office had no shower. His wife tried dropping him off by car (20 minutes door to door), with a return trip home at night by metro (1 hour, 10 minutes door to door). On mornings when Oliphant uses public transit, he gets on a bus about a block from his house, rides to the local metro stop, takes a subway into the city, transfers once, then walks 10 minutes on the other end to his office. In more than an hour, he covers about six miles.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Slugging Benefits

The benefits of slugging: For the passenger, it's a free ride; for the driver, a pass to the HOV lane, and both get a faster trip than they would otherwise. (Monica Lopossay)

[/class]

But a driver who hops on the HOV from Horner Road, 23 miles south of the city, can cover that distance in about 30 minutes.

“The way the entire transportation system in this country is set up is to support people traveling by their own car,” he says. “So parking is subsidized. The incentive with lots of different laws and programs is to drive as much as possible.”

In America, he says, cars have become an extension of houses. Most people would no sooner think to let a stranger into the back seat than they would let the same stranger into their living rooms. Americans drive cars everywhere because gas relatively cheap (half what it costs in Europe), because only 6 percent of the interstate highway system requires tolls, because insurance rates are unrelated to how many miles people drive. We pay for the land we live on, but we expect the parking spot out front to come free of charge. The federal government has lately encouraged drivers with tax breaks to buy, variously: a new car, a hybrid or clean-diesel vehicle, a truck or SUV weighing more than 6,000 pounds, or any upgrade from a “clunker.” Then, regardless of what we drive, the IRS invites lucrative tax deductions for work travel, now at 50 cents a mile.

Go ahead, all the signs (and car ads) seem to suggest: Buy your own car — and ride in it alone!

“I think your average Joe or Jane who doesn’t know anything about transportation thinks things are the way they are because that’s what society wants,” Oliphant says glumly. “And that’s not really the case.”

What if, instead of one bus with a capacity of 50 that came along every 30 minutes, five cars came along every few minutes, each with a capacity to carry five people? Looked at broadly, Oliphant says, slugging is a kind of public transit, because public subsidies pay to pave and restrict the HOV lanes on which slugging relies.

What the people using HOV lanes really want, apparently, is not to enjoy their own company in a stylish and spacious single-occupancy vehicle. People who become slugs just want to get to work and home to dinner as painlessly as possible.

In late July, Oliphant organized a symposium on slugging in a conference room of the Arlington County Commuter Services office. The topic had been, until now, a fringe curiosity, largely ignored by local officials and transportation academics. The few paying attention had never talked to each other, but the meeting drew three dozen people: a local politician, a researcher from the University of Maryland, officials from the district and staffers from the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

Oliphant introduced them all to David LeBlanc, a retired Army officer best described as a folk hero to the slugging community.

“This guy has basically been running a small public transit system for the last 10 years!” Oliphant said, making LeBlanc blush. He is frequently in the awkward position of explaining that he doesn’t lead the slugs. Slugs organize themselves.

When LeBlanc moved to the area in the mid-1990s, slugging was already entrenched. It was born alongside the I-395 HOV in the 1970s. According to the slugs’ creation story, drivers quickly realized they could get people in their cars and qualify for the new lanes by poaching waiting passengers from bus stops. Bitter bus drivers are credited with coining the term “slug,” originally a derogatory reference that has been amiably reappropriated.

The first organized slug line is thought to have formed in the parking lot of Bob’s Big Boy restaurant, now a Shoney’s, in Springfield, Va. Its destination — as with most early slug lines — was the largest single employment center in the country: the Pentagon. There are 25,000 people who work there, and the site is a hub for two underground Metro lines and exponentially more bus routes.

LeBlanc moved to town from Missouri, where he drove four minutes to work each morning and parked in a spot right out front. A friend in Washington warned him. “He said one of the biggest issues in D.C. is where you’re going to live and how you’re going to commute,” LeBlanc says. “A lot of people, they try to figure out the commute first.”

The friend suggested slugging. LeBlanc balked at the idea. For several weeks, he rode the bus 25 miles from Woodbridge, catching it each morning in the same commuter lot where strangers were hopping into each others’ cars. Oliphant often wonders about what pushes people into that position for the first time.

For LeBlanc, it was a morning in the winter of 1996.

“The light bulb went off,” he says. “Here I am standing in the rain, in February, it’s really cold, I’m waiting for a mode of transportation that’s going to get me to work slower and cost me money. And I could just walk across the street, and maybe that would get me to work faster, easier. Let me just try it this one time; give it a try.”

Of course, he never went back. Cars in the HOV lane regularly travel above the speed limit through a corridor where the average speed during congestion is 14 miles an hour. Once you’ve been in that lane, your whole quality of life changes.

LeBlanc slugged to the Pentagon for months, using the subway to hop two stops north to his office in Rosslyn. Eventually, he learned there was a slug line there, too. Up to that time, the slugging culture had sustained itself for 20 years entirely by word of mouth. You could only learn about the system from people inside it, and even after you joined a particular slug line, you might not know about others.

LeBlanc decided slugs needed a book, one that would identify all the lines and the unwritten rules for how to use them. In 1999, he self-published 1,000 copies of Slugging: The Commuting Alternative for Washington, D.C. (Today, a “collectible” signed copy sells on Amazon for $88.65.) “I wrote this book,” he explains in an introduction, “because I don’t want others to have to learn about slugging the way I did … through the school of hard knocks.” But he put his book out of business with its corresponding website.

A decade later, slug-lines.com is the hive of community wisdom. LeBlanc posts a code of etiquette, and the denizens have their message boards where they swap tales of all who violate it. The rules are intricate, if unenforceable: Passengers don’t speak unless spoken to; no talk of religion, politics or sex; no cell phones, no money offered, no smoking; no asking to change the radio station or to adjust the thermostat; and never, ever leave a female slug waiting in line alone. Also frowned upon is something called “body snatching” — cruising a parking lot for passengers to avoid waiting in the orderly first-come, first-served car queue. And, it should go without saying, no one wants to watch you put on your makeup or eat your Egg McMuffin.

One of the more curious slugging behaviors does not appear on LeBlanc’s list: Most cars pull up to a slug line and, regardless of its length, pick up two passengers — and only two.

Jim Cech, who also attended the symposium, gets agitated about the Pentagon parking lot. He pulls out a legal notepad and begins to sketch a diagram: Here are the bus bays, the parking spots, the police directing traffic. There are also eight slugging queues at the Pentagon, heading to more than 15 destinations. The scene is chaotic and not, as Cech fumes, as efficient as it could be.

“Single points of failure drive me crazy,” he says.

To improve the slugging situation at the Pentagon, last year Cech started a side business in his basement. He has been driving slugs for nearly 20 years and figured he could shave a few more minutes off his commute with a sign mounted to the roof of his car, instantly communicating his destination. Currently, each driver must negotiate out the window with each potential passenger to find the right match. Cech’s business, RUGoingMyWay, would eliminate those interactions.

He found a company in China to produce his acrylic signs, another in Canada to make the roof-mount magnets, an outlet in Florida to print the stickers, and a webmaster in India to host his site.

“It’s become an international business,” he jokes, “all designed to help me get to work faster!”

Cech’s labor, like LeBlanc’s, speaks to a key element of the system: Absent any real organization, slugging thrives on the compulsion of individuals who are extremely interested in finding small efficiencies. This is, not coincidentally, what Cech also does by day as an engineering consultant working on naval radars. (Like LeBlanc, he is also retired military.)

“My day job is trying to eke out seconds and miles and bytes,” he says from his office near the Navy Yard. “In order for the system I’m working on to be more effective, the radar’s got to search quicker, the missile’s got to fly straighter, the time to solve the solution has got to go quicker, the data rate has got to be more efficient. The errors have got to be reduced. It’s the same kind of thing, trying to address a systems problem.”

He explains that slugs are, above all, motivated by time saved, not money pocketed — and certainly not by any regard for the environment. A Prius is a rare sight pulling into a slug line. Those ostensibly eco-conscious drivers don’t need slugs to reach a three-person HOV threshold; hybrid owners in Virginia are eligible for a special clean-fuel license plate that gives them a free pass into the HOV.

“Lots of people will pay money for the gas, they’ll pay the money for the tolls,” Cech says. Some of them will even pay to risk the HOV as a single-occupancy vehicle. The first infraction costs $150, and it quickly escalates to $1,000. “The thing you can’t buy,” Cech says, “is time.”

He concedes that he’s not likely to recoup in minutes saved in the Pentagon parking lot all the hours he has invested in his basement business. He took on the project after retiring as the president of his homeowners association. RUGoingMyWay has become, in place of that responsibility, something of a personal challenge.

Cech’s understanding of the psychology of slugging mirrors one of the startling findings of Oliphant’s thesis. Oliphant surveyed 284 participants and asked them, among other things, what they liked least about slugging. Only 31 people mentioned “riding with strangers.” In the three-decade history of the activity, there has not been a single known incidence of violence or crime. When safety was cited as a concern, slugs worried about safe drivers, not personal attacks.

The homogeneity of Washington’s work force may play a role in this casual acceptance of strangers in cars. With so many federal employees and military personnel, people here even look alike, sporting uniform haircuts, black briefcases and government IDs. “If you’re a government employee or in the military, you’re taught ‘the group,’ not individualism,” suggests Donald Vankleeck, a civilian on his way to Bolling Air Force Base one morning in September at 80 miles an hour. “So it’s nothing to get in a stranger’s car. You may have been all over the world serving with people whose first names you never knew.”

Where apprehension does exist, Cech recasts it in oddly bureaucratic terms: “It’s not fear for safety; it’s fear for time,” he says. “Are you going to be held hostage to someone else’s agenda by riding with them?”

What if a driver swings by the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through before getting on the highway?

The casual-carpooling system that thrives across the country in San Francisco betrays any notion that slugging could exist only in Washington. The Bay Area network grew up in similarly organic fashion in the 1970s, although more as a response to public transit service disruptions and rising gas prices.

Today, slugging exists on the HOV corridor on Interstate 80 between the East Bay and, across the Bay Bridge, San Francisco. In addition to time savings, commuters scored an additional advantage: Most cars crossing the Bay Bridge westbound into the city paid a $4 toll. Carpools passed through for free — until last summer.

On July 1, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission changed the toll structure in a way that dramatically disrupted the local slugging ecosystem. Now, everyone must pay a toll to cross the Bay Bridge. Three-person carpools owe $2.50, which must be paid through an electronic transponder usable only in the HOV lane. Everyone else pays a variable rate — $6 per car during rush hour and $4 during the off-peak times. Carpools without the transponder must stop and pay the full rate, in cash, at a toll booth.

“Despite the fact we had all this messaging — we were trying to talk about it for months leading up to July 1 — people still just didn’t get it,” says Susan Heinrich, the commission’s rideshare and bicycling coordinator. Local news stations filmed bewildered drivers pulling into the wrong toll lanes and trying to back out of them, then waving cash at automated transponders.

Back in the East Bay commuter lots, where casual carpools form each morning, more confusion ensued. The new tolls still give carpools crossing the bridge a financial incentive, but the existence of any toll at all where once none existed has dislodged a central tenet of slugging: No money changes hands. Without tolls, slugging is a perfectly equal exchange between riders and drivers.

Since July 1, the discussion board at ridenow.org — the West Coast equivalent of David LeBlanc’s cyberhub — has been dominated by hundreds of comments on the topic of who pays for the toll. Should passengers each offer up a dollar? Does the burden lie with the driver or the rider to broach the issue? Should drivers who expect a donation advertise that in a window sign? The debate has thrust the whole premise of slugging into question: Who, after all, is providing the service here?

“Certainly the contentiousness that exists here on the discussion board must carry over into our carpools in the morning,” one commenter laments. “This is not good for the community.”

“We don’t know exactly how all of this is going to play out yet,” Heinrich says. Transit officials did know, however, that one month after the toll’s implementation, carpooling was down 26 percent on all area bridges. Heinrich suspects that the community will eventually settle into a détente, with the driver paying the toll. Drivers still earn a discount thanks to the added bodies. And, most important, they still reap the time savings on the HOV.

The toll crisis, however, highlights the delicate balance of interests essential for a slugging ecosystem to exist — and why this activity thrives in so few places. In Oliphant’s view, HOV-4 — that is, a requirement that a car have four occupants to drive in the high-occupancy vehicle lane — doesn’t work, but HOV-3 does. HOV-3 lends a sense of security in numbers that HOV-2 never could. The lanes, preferably separated by physical barrier from the rest of traffic, must be long enough for time savings to accrue. The fines for violating them must be steep enough to force compliance. Parallel public transit must exist as a reliable backup. And employment nodes must be situated just so, creating dense, communal urban epicenters that draw workers from across suburbia.

Back on the East Coast, Gabriel Ortiz, the transportation demand management coordinator for Alexandria, has been trying to do what no municipal official has done in the area’s slugging history — create a slug line from scratch, artificially. Washington’s slug lines have expanded over the years, always in response to the demand of the community and with the initiative of some of its members.

But slugs have never had a government body create a new line for them, and the proposition entails both logistical and philosophical dilemmas. LeBlanc, whom Ortiz enlisted as a consultant to the project, warned that he would have to achieve just the right balance of drivers and passengers in the experiment’s first phase to make the new line stick. Downtown Alexandria isn’t located immediately off the HOV, as destinations in Arlington and the district are. So Ortiz was toying with the idea of temporary perks, maybe Starbucks gift cards, to incentivize people where slugging’s natural conditions don’t already exist.

Once a slug himself, Ortiz knew he’d also have to contend with the community’s deep distaste for meddling. Many slugs told Oliphant that they thought any type of intervention — the very idea Oliphant is devoted to encouraging in urban areas outside Washington — would “ruin” the system. (Cech points out that there is an irony here, or perhaps just a depressing commentary on the state of government competence: Many of the slugging proponents who abhor government involvement work, well, for the government.)

“Slugging is its own thing, and I don’t want to have a heavy hand in saying ‘Here’s City Hall doing this!'” Ortiz says. “We want to keep things kind of low-key.”

Chris Hamilton, the Arlington County Commuter Services bureau chief, understands this better than anyone. Sitting in the 11th-floor office where he hosted Oliphant’s symposium two months earlier, he confesses that Arlington has been quietly funding LeBlanc’s website with an annual $10,000 grant. For 10 years. The site doesn’t disclose the connection, and Hamilton seldom does.

“It’s not public knowledge because we don’t want people to know; it works fine the way it is — that people think it’s just this little slugging community,” he says. “The slugging community has always had that idea about themselves, that this is their own thing, and they’ve created it, and they don’t need anybody else to muck it up.”

The $10,000 is not much in Arlington’s $8 million commuter services budget. A model for urban smart growth atop a public transit corridor, the city has 50 people who work in this office trying to prod residents and commuters into alternative transportation. The city promotes the Metro, carpooling, bike lanes and walkable development.

Some officials continue to harbor the suspicion that slugging siphons riders — and fares — from public transit (and not from single-occupancy vehicles). But Hamilton says he doesn’t care how people get to the city, as long as they don’t drive. He also shakes off the suggestion that a city takes on legal liability the moment it encourages people to ride in cars with strangers. If the city also promotes buses and bike lines, and someone is injured using those, is Arlington at fault?

“Slugging is kind of like a dream come true for someone like Chris Hamilton,” Oliphant says. “His job is to give people information, to basically convince them to do anything other than drive their own car. This is like a miracle to him, because he has to spend all this time and energy going, ‘Here’s the bus, here’s how you do it!’ In slugging, people are lining up on their own to do it; you don’t have to do a thing.”

Oliphant always chuckles at slugs’ insistence that government stay out of the way. The whole system wouldn’t work if it weren’t for a crucial official outlay: If law enforcement didn’t police the HOV lanes, there would be no incentive for scofflaws to stay out of it, and no time savings for the carpoolers who go so far out of their way to get in.

Government is also responsible for the free, sprawling park-and-ride lots that dot the I-95 corridor, several of which have flyovers directly onto the HOV. Government is, of course, also responsible for designating the carpool lanes. In short, it has had a hand in creating every element of infrastructure that gives rise to slugging in the first place. At the Pentagon and in Arlington, officials have even put up signs for each slug-line destination (“Horner Road,” “Tackett’s Mill”).

“There are more creative ways to generate beneficial behaviors than the direct heavy-handed ways,” Oliphant says. “I see it as: Give people lots of choices, subsidize the beneficial ones and tax the non-beneficial ones.”

This idea resonates increasingly as the funding for heavy-handed transportation solutions — road expansions, for example — dries up, and as the available space to construct them in dense urban areas disappears. Transportation officials could work with what they have, identifying more HOVs, or converting existing HOV-2s into HOV-3s. They could open more carpool lots in collar counties and build rain shelters to accommodate waiting carpool passengers in the city.

The district is now contemplating this last option in a bid to relocate slugs off of 14th Street, a congested north-south thoroughfare through the city (this, after an outbreak of moving violations incurred the wrath of the slug community). District officials have now smartly offered to solicit community input through LeBlanc’s website and have held several meetings with the slugs.

“Ten, 11 years ago when I first got involved, nobody from government would even talk to you about it,” LeBlanc says. “The dynamics have changed a lot over the years.”

Heinrich and Susan Shaheen, a transportation researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, suspect the change has a lot to do with new technology. With the ubiquity of smart phones, real-time ridesharing — a close cousin of the casual carpool — suddenly has much greater appeal to transportation officials and academics. Theoretically, a driver with a GPS application could spot passengers standing on any street corner in the city.

Several companies are already deploying pilot programs, although the arrival of proprietary smart phone technology brings an added complication. Firms are testing micro-payments between driver and passenger (some of which companies would skim for profit), criminal background checks and reward systems.

But all of those ideas make slugging appear that much more elegant in its simplicity. The system is location-based, not data-driven. You don’t have to tell anyone a thing about yourself — only where you’re heading. And ultimately, personal goals align with the group dynamic in a rare exception to the principle that we often pursue our own interests at the expense of someone else’s (or at the expense of society or the environment).

“It’s like anarchy or chaos, but it actually works,” Oliphant says, road-testing the catchphrase that might carry this idea elsewhere. “It actually works!”

 

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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