Slugging in DC

By Felix Salmon
March 9, 2011
Emily Badger's article on slugging in DC is a really fantastic piece of reporting

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Emily Badger’s article on slugging in DC is a really fantastic piece of reporting. She doesn’t just explain not only the interesting phenomenon of people giving lifts to strangers so that they can drive in HOV lanes, she also puts it in its proper broader context, complete with useful hyperlinks:

Americans drive cars everywhere because gas relatively cheap (half what it costs in Europe), because only 6 percent of the interstate highway system requires tolls, because insurance rates are unrelated to how many miles people drive. We pay for the land we live on, but we expect the parking spot out front to come free of charge. The federal government has lately encouraged drivers with tax breaks to buy, variously: a new car, a hybrid or clean-diesel vehicle, a truck or SUV weighing more than 6,000 pounds, or any upgrade from a “clunker.” Then, regardless of what we drive, the IRS invites lucrative tax deductions for work travel, now at 50 cents a mile.

Go ahead, all the signs (and car ads) seem to suggest: Buy your own car — and ride in it alone!

You can embrace this or you can rail against it, but either way it’s a fact of life. And slugging is a Pareto-optimal way of improving it.

What if, instead of one bus with a capacity of 50 that came along every 30 minutes, five cars came along every few minutes, each with a capacity to carry five people? Looked at broadly, Oliphant says, slugging is a kind of public transit, because public subsidies pay to pave and restrict the HOV lanes on which slugging relies.

My favorite part of the piece is the way in which local government is trying to encourage slugging, but is doing so incredibly quietly, so that the sluggers themselves don’t notice.

Chris Hamilton, the Arlington County Commuter Services bureau chief, understands this better than anyone. Sitting in the 11th-floor office where he hosted Oliphant’s symposium two months earlier, he confesses that Arlington has been quietly funding LeBlanc’s website with an annual $10,000 grant. For 10 years. The site doesn’t disclose the connection, and Hamilton seldom does.

“It’s not public knowledge because we don’t want people to know; it works fine the way it is — that people think it’s just this little slugging community,” he says. “The slugging community has always had that idea about themselves, that this is their own thing, and they’ve created it, and they don’t need anybody else to muck it up.”

In terms of bang for the buck, quiet support of slugging initiatives is surely the cheapest and most effective way that government can improve its citizens’ commuting experience. And it still looks very cost-effective even if reasonably serious amounts of money start getting spent on building new HOV lanes. The big unanswered question though is whether it can be scaled or recreated elsewhere — it’s pretty much nonexistent outside the Bay Area and DC. Badger explains the social forces which make DC slugging work:

The homogeneity of Washington’s work force may play a role in this casual acceptance of strangers in cars. With so many federal employees and military personnel, people here even look alike, sporting uniform haircuts, black briefcases and government IDs. “If you’re a government employee or in the military, you’re taught ‘the group,’ not individualism,” suggests Donald Vankleeck, a civilian on his way to Bolling Air Force Base one morning in September at 80 miles an hour. “So it’s nothing to get in a stranger’s car. You may have been all over the world serving with people whose first names you never knew.”

I’m no expert on the cultural differences between various US metropolitan areas, but in principle I can’t see why this couldn’t work in, say, Charlotte. It clearly can’t work in a sprawling city like LA, since it relies on the existence of central hubs. But there are many US cities with poor public transportation and delineated office zones with parking spaces. It would be hard to get slugging up and running in any of them. But once it’s established, it can become a very popular and powerful force.

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