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Slug-Lines.com - Slugging and Slug Lines Information For Washington DC
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`Slugs' Join Fast Lane In D.C.

By LIZ HALLORAN Courant Staff Writer
July 5 2002

See the original article at: 
http://www.rff.org/news/newsarticles/slugs.htm

WASHINGTON -- Patricia Drake Scott stands in the afternoon swelter of a "Code Red" heat alert leaning off a curb to flash a sign that reads "610."

Behind her, a half-dozen other downtown workers wait their turn to do the same in a ritual repeated daily on dozens of street corners, in commuter lots and outside government buildings.

Drake Scott and her fellow sign-holders are known as "slugs" - they are lining up for free rides from strangers.

Briefcase-carrying renegades, armed with little but frugal natures, blind faith and the occasional sign identifying the road or parking lot of their destination, slugs are not by nature danger-seekers.

They just want to get home to the suburbs on the cheap, and in time for dinner.

In an area where highways are choking with commuter traffic that ranks among the worst in the nation, that takes ingenuity - and a ride in the interstate fast lanes, where a minimum three people to a car is the law.

For more than 20 years, thousands of D.C.-area solo commuters have engaged in a semi-organized form of hitchhiking designed to get them into the cars of solitary drivers - and onto the high-occupancy vehicle lanes, where commuting times may be cut by half during rush hours.

"It saves me an hour commute each way," says Alan Dalton of suburban Stafford, Va., before ducking into a car that had slowed on 14th Street to pick him up from the front of the line. "It's fast, it's free and it lets me live where I do."

And, adds Mayme Smith, in line behind Dalton, it's much more flexible than traditional car-pooling, allowing her to work late or leave early without inconveniencing anyone.

In a city not known for its problem-solving efficiency, slugging has remained a grass-roots movement - a significant commuting alternative unsanctioned and unrecognized by the government and perpetuated largely through word of mouth.

Sluggers coexist peacefully with police, who only occasionally have ordered lines moved if the parade of cars is interfering with bus or taxi traffic.

"It sounds crazy to hop in a car you don't know," says Army Lt. Col. David LeBlanc, who estimates he saved time and about $10 a day in public transportation costs when he slugged while working at the Pentagon, a slugging hub. "But, really, it's the common man's solution to congestion."

He says the term "slug" was coined when HOV lanes opened and people first started congregating at a suburban bus stop to hitch rides with drivers. Public bus drivers referred to them as "counterfeit commuters - like fake coins," LeBlanc said, and, as the story goes, the name stuck.

LeBlanc, who now is stationed in Atlanta, has written a guide to slugging in D.C. and still maintains the city's premiere Internet slugging site.

Sluggers who click on LeBlanc's www.slug-lines.com can keep up on the latest news ("SIX New Slug Lines Proposed"). They can debate issues on a message board (Should FBI agents driving alone be allowed to use the fast lanes?) and scroll the lost and found for umbrellas, cellphones, organizers, raincoats and other worker detritus left in strangers' cars.

There are suggestions for new slug lines, and a review of the once-unwritten etiquette of slugging: Sluggers don't speak unless spoken to; they don't talk about money, sex, politics or other controversial topics; they don't smoke, eat, use cellphones or request a favorite radio station.

They don't offer gas money, and there's no door-to-door service. Those in the "610" slug line, for example, are picked up and dropped off at a commuter lot in Stafford, Va.

"The driver needs the slug as much as the slug needs the driver," LeBlanc says.

The slugging solution is not unique to the nation's capital - it's called "casual commuting" in Oakland, and has been attempted with far less success in other gridlocked cities. But, here, where drivers spend an estimated 84 hours a year stuck in traffic - the third-worst delays in the nation - it thrives.

"Slugging is a product of HOV lanes," said Elena Safirova, an urban transportation expert who is researching the practice as part of a larger study. It works in D.C., she says, because using the HOV lanes requires three people a car, and the HOV lanes in suburban Virginia are segregated from regular traffic lanes by Jersey barriers.

From the organization of the first slug line in the parking lot of an old Bob's Big Boy restaurant in suburban Virginia, the network has grown to 30 active slug lines - 20 in the morning in the Virginia suburbs, 10 in the city for rides home.

"The slugging population is very diverse, and, amazingly, people say it's a very safe way to commute," said Safirova, a fellow with Resources for the Future, a social science research organization.

LeBlanc theorizes that the safety comes from numbers - sluggers almost always ride with another slugger or two, and they are encouraged not to leave female sluggers alone on line.

"Having three in the car, there's a comfort there," he said. "If someone feels somewhat uneasy, they'll either pass on that ride, or ask to take another person along."

Drake Scott says that sluggers also become familiar with regular drivers - people they might see in the grocery store, or at church - though she and others say they're not aware of any romances blossoming on the slug lines.

As she was talking, a Pontiac Bonneville eased to the curb, and Drake Scott, who is just back to work after a maternity leave, recognized the driver.

"It's Mary," she called out, pointing to the driver. "Mary - I have baby pictures to show you!"

She and two other sluggers squeezed into the car and off they roared over the 14th Street bridge and into the fast lanes.

Copyright 2002, Hartford Courant

 

 
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