Impatient commuters form impromptu car pools
By LUCAS WALL
2002 Houston Chronicle
Traffic congestion has a growing number of commuters here
ignoring a basic rule from childhood: Never get in a car with
OF THE SLUG LINE
• A "slug" is a commuter who accepts a
ride with a stranger instead of driving alone or
taking a bus.
• A "body snatcher" is a driver who picks
up enough passengers to qualify for the HOV lane. The
Web site www.slug-lines.com
offers the following etiquette tips:
• Slugs should never cut in line unless recognized
and summoned by a driver.
• Drivers should wait in the queue rather than
cruise the lot hoping to pick up slugs faster.
• Slugs have the right to pass up a ride if they
don't like the particular car. Never get in a car with
someone if you feel it is not safe.
• Wait for the driver to initiate conversation.
Otherwise, assume the driver wants a quiet trip.
• If a conversation is started, do not bring up
subjects involving religion, politics or sex.
• No money or gifts are ever offered or exchanged. A
driver doesn't want gas money; he wants your body.
• There is no smoking or eating by the driver or
slug. And everyone is expected to buckle up.
• A slug does not ask to change the radio station,
adjust the heat or A/C, or open or close the window.
• Don't expect curbside service. Drivers will
usually let you off at the bus stop nearest your
Hundreds of passengers and drivers team up each day to
create impromptu car pools that let them whiz to work in the
HOV lane. As the region grows and traffic worsens, the trend
appears to be gaining popularity as commuters search for
alternatives to Houston's every-man-for-himself freeway
Many commuters who do it say they were skeptical of
impromptu car pooling at first. But once they gave it a try,
they found an efficient system that saves time, money and
stress. Drivers in these pools get to use the high-occupancy
vehicle lanes on four area freeways, shaving time and
frustration off their commutes. Riders save bus fare or the
expense of driving themselves and usually arrive at their
destination more quickly and more comfortably.
"At first I didn't do this because it's kind of weird
riding with strangers," Sandy Jones said while waiting in
the informal car-pool line at 6:40 one recent morning at the
Metropolitan Transit Authority's Addicks Park & Ride lot,
near Interstate 10 and Texas 6. "But then other people
were telling me when they drive in, they pick people up. So I
thought, `Well, I'll try it.' And it's worked out real
Jones, who works at Enron, has been commuting downtown from
the west side for two years. She'll wait for a car pool if the
line is short. Otherwise, she takes the No. 228 express bus.
The Addicks lot appears to be the capital of instant car
pooling around Houston, with demand driven by traffic volume
on I-10. That stretch of freeway west of Loop 610 has the
worst congestion in the region, according to data from several
transportation sources, carrying 212,000 vehicles per day.
The average speed through the corridor during the peak
morning rush (7:30 to 7:45) is 21.5 mph. The I-10 HOV lane is
the busiest, carrying about 12,000 people each rush hour in
buses and car pools that can usually fly along at more than 60
"It used to take 1 1/2 hours to drive in by
myself," said Patrick Amesur, a stockbroker at A.G.
Edwards & Sons. "My commute now, literally I get here
in less than 20 minutes once I pick the people up."
Amesur said his job often requires him to travel for
appointments outside his Chase Tower office, so riding a bus
daily is not a feasible option. The car-pool system gives him
and many others flexibility in their commutes.
Amesur learned about instant car pooling about six months
ago. While waiting for an outbound bus, a woman pulled up and
offered him a ride. In the evening, vehicles approach bus
stops along Louisiana and shout out where they're headed.
Another benefit of driving strangers to and from work: You
meet new friends and prospective clients.
Joseph Deering / Chronicle
Fisher looks for passengers at Metro's Addicks Park
& Ride lot. The instant car pools allow a fast
trip in the HOV lane.
"It's good for business," Amesur said.
Metro acknowledges there is nothing illegal about instant
car pooling and that it has not received any complaints.
Nevertheless, the transit authority does not support the
practice and suggests people instead call its
car-pool/van-pool hot line, which can match people in the same
area for more traditional ride sharing.
"The bottom line is, one should always look out for
personal safety," said Metro Police Chief Tom Lambert.
"We wouldn't encourage people to get into strangers'
vehicles. Be mindful of the possibilities and the consequences
of that action.
"We think the No. 1 safety tip would be: Don't do
The nation's first HOV lane was built in 1973 in northern
Virginia. It was on those same congested arteries around the
nation's capital that instant car pooling took off in the
1980s. Today, it's a mini-industry. There are two Web sites,
newsletters, an etiquette list and even a book on the topic.
It also has its own weird-sounding name: "slugging."
At the three dozen listed pick-up and drop-off points
around Washington, D.C., riders are called "slugs"
and drivers "body snatchers." The terms are said to
have originated as derogatory descriptions assigned by bus
drivers, who likened the riders to counterfeit coins, or
slugs, used to gain a free trip. As for the drivers' moniker,
well, that's obvious: They're looking for warm bodies to meet
the HOV requirement.
The San Francisco area also is known for slugging, but the
practice apparently is rare elsewhere.
Houston saw its first HOV lane in 1978 on Interstate 45.
Metro opened its first barrier-separated lane in 1984 on I-10.
Such lanes now also exist on I-45, U.S. 59 and U.S. 290 and
carry 119,000 people per day, according to Metro. Two-thirds
of Houston HOV users are in private vehicles, the rest in
Phil Fisher, a professor of speech communication at San
Jacinto College South, said he believes slugging first came to
Houston around 1990 and has slowly grown more popular.
Fisher drives from his Garden Manor Drive home across the
city to campus. In the morning, he swings by Addicks to pick
up slugs, drops them off downtown, and continues to the
college. In the evening, it's the reverse.
"If I am not the father, then I certainly am one of
the founding fathers of impromptu car pooling," said
Fisher, who moved to northwest Harris County in 1990.
No one appeared to be forming impromptu car pools at that
time, he said, so he gave it a shot to shorten his drive time.
"I just used a magic marker, made a sign, drove by the
lot and got some funny looks," Fisher said.
But soon he found commuters willing to ride along.
"In the beginning, folks offered me money or would
ask, `How much do you charge?' I would say, `Heck, I could
never make the 44.5 miles to work without your help. I should
be paying you guys!' "
Fisher has become well known to west-side commuters. He has
a yellow-and-red sign he holds out the window of his 1997
Cadillac DeVille that screams, "RIDERS PLEASE." He
estimates he's had 3,700 people commute with him in the past
Like most longtime body snatchers, he has some stories. Two
men, both of whom were raised in Egypt, discovered that they
were cousins while riding in his car. When a despondent woman
talked about a pending layoff, the other passenger in Fisher's
car offered her a job interview for a position he had open.
And when one lonely slug bemoaned his regret over never having
asked out a beautiful high school classmate, he soon found out
she was the other passenger's wife.
Fisher has developed numerous "HOV friendships"
with folks he drives on a regular basis. He said he wishes
everyone would behave as kindly.
"This has been a community of tremendous peace and
respect," he said, "even great education and
Some hope to keep it a small, secretive community, worried
whether the system will keep working as more people find out
-- and competition for rides gets tougher.
"A lot of people ask, `What is going on over there?'
" said Danette McCleary, who works downtown at Cinergy
and often catches rides in from the west side. "Maybe I
don't want to tell you because then you'll be in the line next
"I know more people are catching on."
Here's how it works at Addicks: Passengers wait in a line
at a sign that reads, "Downtown Carpool Pickup,"
near where buses load. Drivers wait in a queue and accept one
or two riders, depending on the hour. The I-10 HOV lane
requires three people from 6:45 to 8 a.m. and 5 to 6 p.m., and
two people at other times.
A reporter observed the area for four hours on a recent
morning. The system was amazingly smooth. Drivers and riders
were usually matched within a minute or two; no one ever
waited more than seven minutes. If the slug line grew too
long, people would take the bus. If drivers were available,
some of those walking toward the bus would hop in.
The first express bus left with 52 passengers at 5:25 a.m.,
but the car-pool line did not begin until 6:12. It ran almost
nonstop until the last rider was whisked away at 9:27. The
slug line never grew beyond 10; no more than four cars were
Hitching a ride saves the $3 express bus fare. And while
standing in the slug line is a daily routine for some, the
motivation isn't always financial.
"You are saving some money, but it's mainly because of
the reliability of getting to work or home on time," said
Eley Grimes, who works at ChevronTexaco and has been slugging
for a year.
Karla and Ted Brisendine have regularly taken rides with
strangers the past eight months to their jobs at Continental
"Look at I-10," he said, pointing to the crawling
cars at 7:30 a.m. "I-10 is a nightmare no matter what
time you get on it, so anytime you can catch the HOV lane,
that's what we do."
His wife said she's conscious of what could go wrong
getting into the vehicle of someone she doesn't know.
"I wouldn't do it by myself," she said. "But
I feel comfortable with my husband."
Jack Murchison, a slug of five years, echoed many in
brushing aside safety concerns. He said the greatest risk is
"getting in a car with somebody who could be a crappy
While some love the camaraderie, others long to be on their
own again. Anil Pande, who drives to the Addicks lot from Katy
to get a ride to his job at 4 Houston Center, said he can't
wait until the freeway is widened.
"If the road were better, then I'd much rather
drive," he said. "But I-10 being what it is,
everyone is forced into this. There's not a lot of choice. You
find people who have been stuck in the freeway hours a day for
months who then decide, `I might as well switch to this.'
For information about HOV lanes and Metro's