April 22, 2003
It\'s a Slugfest
by Radley Balko
Radley Balko is a policy analyst with the Cato
Article located at: http://www.cato.org/research/articles/balko-030422.html
It's always fascinating to read about how makeshift markets
always find ways of emerging, even in the unlikeliest of
places. On April 21, for example, this site featured a piece
by Pete Geddes, which explained how markets and
entrepreneurship took root in, of all places, German POW camps
in WWII -- with chocolate and cigarettes as currency. Geddes
also told of how open-air auctions became prevalent in our
most recent war with Iraq, due to thinning supply lines and a
shortage of cigarettes.
Here in Washington, D.C., we have another unique example of
how two parties, each possessing something the other wants,
have spontaneously found a way to help one another. What's
especially fun in this example is that both parties are using
one another to circumvent subsidized carpooling, a silly
attempt at environmentally friendly behavior modification
otherwise known as "green" or "HOV
(High-occupancy vehicle)" lanes.
Slugging works like this: Most of the main thoroughfares in
and around Washington have lanes that are HOV-restricted. You
need two or sometimes three passengers to use them. As a
result, drivers sit in gridlock agony along the I-395 while
vast swaths of highway go unused.
Over the years, at a number of spots throughout the city
and suburbs, "slug lines" have emerged, checkpoints
where drivers can stop and pick up enough passengers to
legally make use of carpool lanes. Drivers get to use the HOV
lanes, slugs get a clean car instead of a Metro bus or crowded
train, and both save big chunks of time off the commute.
In Washington, slugging has been around since the onset of
HOV lanes in 1971, and has been a staple of Washington
commuter culture since the late 1980s. In fact, an entire
slugging subculture has emerged, complete with an explanatory
website, vernacular, etiquette, and, of course, a book. The
website even offers a "lost and found" where slugs
can reclaim umbrellas, purses and scarves inadvertently left
with "scrapers" (the slugs' term for drivers).
Slugs are entirely self-governed. Slug etiquette, for
example, includes items like "never leave a woman
standing alone in a slug line," "don't converse
unless the driver talks first," and in any case, "no
talk of religion, politics or sex." Slugs and scrapers
self-police, because every slug who breaks a rule turns off a
potential ride home to the system. The same goes for scrapers.
Despite the hundreds of slug transactions that have
happened every day for decades in D.C. there has yet to be a
documented case of slug-related theft, assault, rape, or
murder. Only the occasional gripe about inappropriate music or
bad driving on the slug message boards.
Imagine, an efficient, beneficial, self-correcting system
of transporting people, and it all happened without a federal
grant, an "impact study" or the oversight of an
office of D.C. bureaucrats!
In fact, slugging emerged precisely because of the
inefficiency put on D.C. commuters by HOV restrictions. As the
Suffice it to say that for being an unregulated system
without written rules, the concept of slugging has a very
structured approach that operates by the will of the people.
It is a wonderful market rejoinder to city and state
attempts to engineer commuter behavior. Even politicians have
embraced the trend.
So why "slugs?"
The story behind the word is as interesting as the
phenomenon. According to the website, in slugging's infancy,
Metro bus drivers would routinely mistake slug lines for lines
of Metro bus passengers (for convenience, slug lines are
usually aligned closely with Metro bus routes). Bus drivers
got frustrated, and so coined the term "slugs" as a
modern incarnation of the longstanding bus driver headache:
passengers who drop fake coins -- slugs -- in lieu of bus
fare. In the mind of the city transportation employee, modern
slugs -- just like the counterfeiters -- are simply looking
for a free ride home.
Some environmental groups have hailed slugging as a credit
to their carpooling efforts -- it does after all put more
traffic in the HOV lanes. But every slug riding shotgun in a
Buick is one less body on the Metro, or on a bus. That same
Buick burns off the same number of miles to and from the city
whether it's filled with slugs or not -- whether it putters
along 395 proper, or zips down the I-395 carpool lanes. The
only difference: with slugs, the city loses out on Metro or
bus fare. Slugging isn't a credit to HOV restrictions, it's an
act in defiance of them.
Washington thus far seems to be the city where slugging is
most prevalent, though slug cultures are emerging in Houston
and San Francisco. Officials in Seattle's King County,
Washington actually attempted a city-run
"spontaneous" slug system. It hasn't gone so well,
of course. Slugging can't be planned. It just happens.
Slugging is a great example of how market forces will trump
the efforts of heavy-handed bureaucrats and central planners.
So long as there are unused stretches of road, angry commuters
will find ways to put their cars on them.
This article originally appeared in Tech Central
Station on April 22, 2003.