When Barry Fultz lived in Hackensack, he faced the same commuter
dilemma as thousands of New Jerseyans who work in Manhattan.
Ride public transportation and suffer the discomfort and inconvenience.
Drive alone and suffer the traffic jams and stress. It was a dilemma
Fultz overcame when he moved to Woodbridge, Va., last year to take a
new job in Washington.
That's when Fultz, 47, became a slug.
Slugging is a uniquely D.C. phenomenon. It's a self-regulated carpool
system that spontaneously links up car-less slugs with solo drivers
looking to gain access to the area's high-speed, high-occupancy-vehicle
Last week, as New York was drawing up contingency plans in the event of
a transit strike, New York City's mayor suggested that city-bound New
Jersey commuters might want to "partner-up" - a suggestion New Jersey
officials were quick to warn against.
But in Washington, it's worked.
As a general rule, drivers and slugs don't work together and usually
don't know each other. In fact, they may not even talk. The relationship
is odd, awkward and flies in the face of everything your mother ever
told you about getting into a stranger's car.
But for Fultz, who's been slugging everyday for a year, there's no
better way to go.
"It's a lot easier than anything I ever did to get in to New York and
it doesn't cost anything," he said as he motioned to a car waiting for one
more passenger. "Sometimes I get dropped off right in front of my door.
You can't beat it."
Police and transportation officials in Virginia don't officially
endorse slugging. But it's so important to cutting down on traffic congestion
that queuing areas for slugs have been designed in some park-and-ride
According to David LeBlanc, webmaster of www.slug-lines.com, the
unofficial Web page of the slug community, the first slug line
developed in the late 1970s outside a Bob's Big Boy restaurant in Springfield,
Va., when a carpool needed one more person to get on the state's new
HOV lanes. A waiting passenger took up the ride offer, and a commuting
trend was born.
Soon, commuters began passing on the bus in favor of the cars that
pulled up to the bus stop. Irritated bus drivers referred to the
non-riders as "slugs" after the term for counterfeit coins. It stuck.
Today, slugging has evolved into a precise system with its own lingo
and etiquette. There are more than two dozen pick-up spots designated on
LeBlanc's Web site, with drop-offs at a dozen locations in Washington.
"It's amazing in the morning how many hundreds of people move through
the slug lines every hour," said LeBlanc, a lieutenant colonel in the
Army who slugged to the Pentagon for four years before being transferred
to Rhode Island. "Why ride the bus where you pay $5 and it takes you 45
minutes when you can get into a car, get there in 25 minutes and not
Slugs ride free, according to the rules posted on LeBlanc's Web site.
In turn, they're expected to keep quiet, sit still and leave the radio,
windows and air conditioning alone. Drivers, for their part, are
expected to drop slugs off at the agreed-upon location and drive safely
and with a degree of civility. Break the rules and there's a good
chance someone will call you out on the Web site's message board.
"You don't want to hop in the car and have idle chit-chat for half an
hour every day," says LeBlanc. "Get in the car, say thanks and don't
touch anything. If it's uncomfortable, suck it up and ride with someone
else next time."
As good an idea as slugging seems to sluggers, it's been slow to catch
on outside of Virginia. Houston and San Francisco have fledgling
and Seattle is promoting a variation called "casual carpooling" to ease
city traffic. Still, progress has been slow. Even in the D.C. area,
some slug lines have flopped in areas without strictly enforced HOV lanes.
Daryl Young, a D.C. hospital worker who lives in Manassas, Va., said
that slugging cuts her commute in half and that even as a woman she has
never been afraid.
"I haven't heard of any incidents, and there's never been anything in
the paper," Young said.
LeBlanc agreed. "If slugging was a hazard, no one would slug. But they
do because it's efficient, safe and it's faster and cheaper than public
transportation," he said.