July 27, 2006
For some in Washington, commuting’s a slug-fest
By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON -- Rush hour in Washington brings the slugs out into the light.
Each workday, members of a unique breed of commuters known as "slugs" line up, sometimes at regular bus stops, sometimes at special areas. Chatting quietly, they wait for strangers to pick them up and drive them to the office, or home at the end of the day.
The slugs constitute a decades-old system of casual car-pooling that moves thousands of workers from the suburbs to the city, with no money changing hands and no official government involvement.
"No one's really in charge," said David LeBlanc, a longtime slug who has written a book on the phenomenon. "The slugs themselves will decide ... What always prevails is common sense."
Slugging started in the early 1970s in the Washington area, soon after a main commuter route instituted rush-hour express lanes for vehicles carrying two or more people. Solo drivers would troll local bus stops before getting on the highway, hoping to pick up a rider and get in the express lane.
The riders became known as slugs, in a nod to the fake coins fare-beating riders would use on public buses.
The U.S. Transportation Department has no official position on slugging, but generally encourages car-pooling. In Washington, where car commutes can take hours and parking can be costly, only 40.5 percent of workers drive alone to their jobs. This is the lowest percentage of solo car commuters in the United States. Alabama has the highest percentage, with 85.4 percent.
Other U.S. cities encourage casual car-pooling, including San Geronimo, California, where riders must register and wait at designated spots. But Washington's slug lines have grown on their own, apparently crime-free and remarkably effective.
A whole slug culture has evolved, with its own etiquette, security, ratings, and even poetry. At a well-used Web site, www.slug-lines.com, slugs pour our their hearts about scary drivers, dirty cars, snoring fellow slugs and other annoyances.
Among the rules: Slugs are not supposed to talk during the ride, but if they do, such topics as religion, politics and sex are taboo. No money or gifts exchange hands. Cellphone conversations are kept to a minimum. No smoking or eating by either the driver or the slug. Slugs don't fiddle with the radio, heat, air conditioning or windows. And a slug-line never leaves a woman standing alone.
Why do they do it? Because it's fast, cheap and flexible.
Unlike regular car pools, slugging lets workers travel any time the rush-hour car-pool lanes are open. They assemble at a dozen or more spots in suburban Virginia in the morning and 10 places in the city and close-in areas in the afternoon.
LeBlanc said in a telephone interview that he saves 30 to 40 minutes each way on his daily commute from far suburban Virginia to Crystal City, across the Potomac River from Washington.
However, Latoya, who declined to give her surname as she waited in line two blocks from the White House, said the weather can make her commute great or grim.
"When it's pouring down rain, that's a severe minus," she said, adding that slugging does not necessarily save her time. "The littlest thing on the highway will throw off everything."
But she said she saves money, and gets an added dividend: "Each day you get to pick and choose what kind of car you want to ride in. So if you're out looking for a new car, that's a way to test drive a car."