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Would You Ever Be a Slug?

Slug lines are probably the most efficient form of urban transit yet invented

"Some say that the single greatest wasted transportation resources are all the empty seats in private automobiles."

The above quote is from Marc Oliphant, urban planner for the Federal Highway Administration at a panel discussion about casual carpooling. The discussion was run by the community support organization Tools of Change, based in Canada.

Oliphant and a group of travel and road experts discussed the benefits and safety concerns of slugging, in a 2010 webinar entitled "Casual Carpooling: Slugging in D.C."

Just what is slugging?

It’s an informal version of carpooling where people stand in makeshift waiting areas waiting to be picked up for work or other destinations.

Slugging isn't really a brand new concept, as it grew in popularity in the 1970's when High Occupancy Vehicle lanes  (HOV) were built in heavy traffic areas like Washington D.C., New York and San Francisco.

With gas and toll prices on the steady incline, many consumers have found slugging a practical and easy way to cut down on daily commuter costs, not to mention the daily agony of traffic that moves about as fast as your average slug (the gastropod variety).

In theory, both the passenger and driver benefit, as the passenger gets a free ride to work, avoiding the hassles of public transportation, and the driver is able to use  the HOV lane, so everyone is able to cut down on commute times.

It was that very common need between driver and passenger that birthed slugging in the first place, and made it vastly different from carpooling.

Organized, but oh so dull

Carpooling is a much more organized way of sharing a ride during a commute. Typically, the driver and passengers all know each other and the travelers tend to be the same people each day. (If you've never tried it, get ready to be really bored, really quickly).

With slugging, an owner of a vehicle picks up one or more strangers at places like bus stops, commuter lots, and subway stations. In many cases no money is exchanged.

What was once just a random collection of people using this unique way of commuting, slugging has now turned into something of an underground secret society and has become popular in other cities like Houston, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh.

There's also a handful of websites for the slugger like Slug-Lines.com that serve as a one-stop-informational-shop for the daily commuter.

On the site travelers can view the different slug lines available for travel, communicate with other passengers about what annoyances and dangers to look out for, and even use the site to start a slug service of their own.

Rules of etiquette

There are even rules of etiquette established by the slug-riding community.

For example other commuters aren't supposed to leave a woman in a slug line by herself, so female passengers are almost never alone.

Also, drivers never pick up a passenger if the person is not at a designated pick up site, as to better identify a true slugger.

In addition, the driver has complete control of radio and climate control, and no one talks to the driver unless he or she initiates conversation.

You think DC federal workers are a little OCDish?

According to the general Internet chatter of current slug-riders, safety problems have actually been quite minimal. In fact, riding with  complete strangers isn't the biggest concern among travelers, and neither is making it to work on time.

Most of the complaints about slugging pertain to small things like bad driving experiences, whether it's the car being too hot, or the driver being too chatty.

Drivers of slug-lines also face uncertainties as they have no control over a car full of strangers.  It's possible the driver is even worse off since their attention is should bewith driving safely... at least one hopes so.

Currently, there are no safety regulations passed by the U.S. government, and officials have kept pretty quiet about the car-slugging phenomenon. On the other hand, no one has suggested there's a need for any. 

Quietly supportive

Although state representatives have spoken in favor of slugging, they choose not to heavily promote it, as it could take away revenue from the public transport industry.

In the Tools of Change webinar, panelists championed the idea of slugging, while also pointing out safety and liability concerns.

For example, the panelist felt slugging may not be ideal for those cities and states that aren't largely populated, since pick-up sites would have fewer travelers.

"You need large numbers of people living and working together," said Oliphant. "For example, the Pentagon has 25,000 workers. The Navy Yard in Washington D.C. has 13,000 workers. These are serious destinations."

There are also a great number of workers at both locations who live down in Prince William County, Va.  "The commute time has to be long enough that it's worth it for someone to go and park at the commuter lot and wait in line to get a ride."

In a 2006 study conducted by Texas A&M University entitled "Slugging in Houston-Casual Carpool Passenger Characteristics," it showed the average slugger is between the ages of 25 and 34, and typically works  in a managerial or administrative capacity.

The report also states those of higher income usually shy away from slugging regardless of geography.

Whether slugging is right for you really depends on how difficult your daily commute is and your level of comfort traveling with strangers.

Slug-Lines.com is a great site for those undecided about casual commuting, and those current sluggers needing the latest updates and news.

The site was created by David E. LeBlanc, who also wrote the book "Slugging: The Commuting Alternative for Washington DC."

Those thinking about this creative way of transport should speak to friends who slug, while also reading the handful of materials online and in local libraries.

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