D.C.’s Unique “Slugging”: Carpooling With Random Strangers

Posted on April 5, 2013


It’s something in between organized hitchhiking and anonymous carpooling, but strangely, it works.

I recently ran across a CNBC story lamenting the fact that even as gas prices spike, more people prefer to drive alone.  This should “make you scratch your head,” writes Philip LeBeau.

Not really!  When Hubby and I were first assigned to the Pentagon, we rejoiced that for once in our careers, we could actually drive to work together!  Going to work in the morning was great.  The problem was getting home.  A typical afternoon-wearing-into-evening phone exchange went like this:

“Are you ready to go?”  “Not yet, I need 15 minutes to finish up one thing.”  “Okay, I can go through some emails.  Call me back.”  [15 minutes later]  “Okay, I’m ready.  Want to meet in the hall?”  “Um, actually, something came up.  This will only take about 10 minutes.  I’ll call you back.”  [20 minutes go by]  “Ugh, that took longer than I thought, are you ready?”  “Well, actually, my boss just came in here, and we have to get something ready for first thing tomorrow, it’s kind of urgent…”  “Okay, I’m not sitting at my desk any more.  I will be out in the hall, come find me.”  Maybe 20 or 30 minutes after that, we might be able to flee the building.  Car-pooling together actually caused us to stay at work 30, 60, 90 minutes longer than if we were each able to leave at a convenient stopping point; waiting for the other person only got us roped into some new pressing concern, or else standing vacantly out in the hallway.  So despite the fact that we worked on the same floor and same corridor of the same building, we went back to driving separately.

Then we discovered “slugging” or “slug lines.”  As far as I can tell, it is unique to the Washington Metro area, and it started sometime back in the 1970s.  Here’s how it works:  You need at least three people in a car to use the HOV lanes and speed up your commute.  Drivers go to mutually understood “slug lots” to pick up “slugs” (passengers).   The driver announces the destination lot, two slugs (or three if the driver agrees) hop in, and they’re off into the HOV lanes.  The destinations are convenient to various major employers and to the Metro, for those who need to continue on via bus or train.

Slugging works great at those times of day when the HOV rules are in effect:  6AM to 9AM, and 3PM to 6PM.  Outside of those hours, a lot of drivers stop picking up the slugs because they no longer get the benefit of the HOV lanes.  Because of this – and the fact that my job often kept me working past 6PM – I much preferred to pick up slugs, than to be picked up as a slug.  On the other hand, if I was leaving work after 6PM,  I usually swung by the slug lanes at the Pentagon just to make sure no one was languishing for a ride to my destination.

The Pentagon slug lane, as seen in a Google Maps view.

The Pentagon parking lot slug lane (Google Maps view).

Slugging is not for everyone; Hubby was never keen on the idea of hosting total strangers in his car, or of getting into a stranger’s vehicle, but the system is surprisingly safe.  In all the decades of its existence, there have been no crimes reportedly associated with slugging (except for an incident in 2010, when – of all people – the Sergeant Major of the Army allegedly struck one of the slugs with his car after they argued with him over his driving behavior).  But even without the fear of crime, slugging can get interesting… and not always in a good way.  Check out some sluggers’ personal experiences at this link. Then again, even worse things have been known to happen on public transportation around here.

The big mystery, with all of its success here in DC… which is consistently labeled as one of the most traffic-congested cities in the US… is why slugging has not spread to other cities.  One thing is certain, though: slugging works because there are no official rules, bureaucracy, administrative requirements, fees, or anything else.  People just do it, and it runs amazingly well on plain old common sense.

Read more at Slug-Lines.com, and have a great weekend!