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Slug-Lines.com - Slugging and Slug Lines Information For Washington DC
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Slug-Lines.com - Slugging and Slug Lines Information For Washington DC
  Newspaper and Radio Stories

April 22, 2003

It\'s a Slugfest

by Radley Balko

Radley Balko is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute.

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 website says:

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.


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