Commute to Washington, the Early Bird Gets 'Slugs'
by Peter T. Kilborn (29 Apr 03)
New York Times
Va., April 25 — A chilly dawn is breaking over the
Horner Road commuter parking lot in Woodbridge, 25
miles south of Washington, D.C. A woman in a white
Mercedes pulls up to the front of the line of people
dressed for office work.
"Pentagon?" she asks a bald man in a
"Yes, ma'am," he tells her, climbing
"Pentagon?" she asks the next in line, a
man with a book.
And then they are off, whipping 60 and 70 miles an
hour up Interstate 95 in the H.O.V. lanes, passing
drivers crawling in the regular lanes that make I-95
and I-395 to Washington among the most enervating,
most crash-prone, most congested rush-hour arteries in
the nation. They will be at work in half an hour, as
little as a quarter of the time that each would have
spent driving alone.
This form of commuting — solo drivers picking up
strangers so they can all cruise to work legally in
high-occupancy-vehicle lanes — is called
"slugging." Passengers are
"slugs," a label alluding not to their
energy or wit but to counterfeit tokens and coins. A
ride, too, is a slug. Drivers are drivers, or less
commonly, "body snatchers,"
"scrapers" and "land sharks." With
little notice outside Washington, these Northern
Virginia commuters to the nation's capital and big
office sites of nearby Arlington, Rosslyn and Crystal
City have blended hitchhiking and carpooling into a
quick, efficient way to outmaneuver a traffic-choked
Slugging started by spontaneous eruption and runs
by perpetual motion. When the area's three-person,
high-occupancy vehicle lanes opened 30 years ago, some
guy and then another and another picked up commuters
at bus stops to get the passengers needed to use the
lanes. No government agency sanctions slugging, runs
it, regulates it, promotes it or thought it up. The
Census Bureau, which tracks most forms of commuting,
knows nothing about slugging.
In slugging, there is no supervisor, dispatcher or
schedule, no ticket or fare. No think tank has
analyzed it, although one slug, Lt. Col. David LeBlanc
of the Army, has written a how-to book,
"Slugging," which he published himself, and
he operates one of two local slugging Web sites. But
organized oversight stops there.
There are, however, rules.
"When you get in the car, you don't converse
with the driver," said David Howe, 41, a slug who
works as a security manager for the Defense
Department. "Only the driver can initiate a
conversation. You're basically a body in the car.
You're not to talk on a cellphone or with other people
in the car."
Slugs must not smoke, eat, fiddle with the radio,
windows or air-conditioning or, if they are invited to
talk, say anything at all about religion or politics,
Mr. Howe said.
About 10,000 commuters in Northern Virginia — no
one keeps an exact count — go to and from work this
way. In a study four years ago, the Virginia
Department of Transportation spotted slugs aboard one
in four cars traveling the H.O.V. lanes during the
6-to-9 a.m., three-rider restricted period. Since then
the number of sites for them to park and line up off
I-95 and in Washington, especially along 14th Street,
where slugs stand to go home, has grown.
The Virginia Department of Transportation, which
operates 12 commuter lots just off I-95 that are used
mostly by slugs, has expanded the parking places to
7,934, all free of charge, from 4,205 in 1995. Most
were added in the last two years. Privately owned
sites, mostly in malls, account for at least 2,000
additional free spaces. Many lots fill up by 7:30, so
slugs' cars line roads into the lots.
"I live about three miles from here," in
a large planned community called Montclair, said Mr.
Howe as he walked into the 360-car Dumfries Road lot,
just east of I-95's Exit 152. It was 7:40 a.m. and the
lot was already full, so he parked with a long line of
other cars on an adjacent road. No slug line remained,
and as he waited — just five minutes for a ride to
the Pentagon — Mr. Howe explained the system.
In the lots, a driver at the head of the car line
pulls up to the "head slug" in the front of
the commuter line. He flashes an 8-by-10 card showing
one of the line's regular destinations, like the
Pentagon, the State Department, or 14th and
Constitution downtown, or calls it out. If that is the
head slug's destination, he gets in the car. If,
instead, the head slug is going to Rosslyn, the driver
must take the next in line going to the Pentagon. A
driver who spots a friend down the line may offer him
a ride, and a slug can take another car if he is
suspicious of the driver of the first. In practice, it
is first come first served.
the end of the day, "slugs" heading
for Northern Virginia line up along 14th
Street to wait for a ride.
"Generally, it's safe because you have one
driver picking up two strangers," said Jenny
Cameron, 26, who was in line for a ride from the
Horner Road site here to her job downtown at the World
"I slug because I can't afford the parking
downtown," Ms. Cameron said. "It costs $7 in
She said: "I have turned down rides where two
men were in the front seat. In general, I've never
been scared. Only once in a while do you get a bad
driver. The worst thing was getting in a car and
finding somebody was smoking. More often you hear
about nice stuff like drivers' picking up slugs when
other drivers' cars have broken down."
Tracy Rutherford, 41, a college admissions officer
in Crystal City who has been hauling slugs for six
years, explains what happens when a cellphone rings:
"I just ask them to keep it short. We all have to
check in sometimes. There's never a hassle because we
need each other. They need me. I need them."
Linda Cockrell, a screening manager at Reagan
National Airport, pulled up in a green Jeep.
"What I do is take the H.O.V. and the Pentagon
exit off 395 and drop people off" approaching the
airport, said Ms. Cockrell, who lives in Manassas.
Without slugs aboard, she said, "it takes me over
two hours to drive it. With this it's less than 30
No government agencies, slugging Web sites or slugs
and drivers interviewed could cite a single instance
of crime and slugging.
"I have never heard of any crime, any foul
play, anything," Mr. Howe said. "The only
thing that happened to me that was adverse, I got in a
car at the Pentagon, and the guy ran out of gas."
The driver called for assistance, and Mr. Howe called
a friend for a ride back to his lot.
Lately, transportation analysts say, experiments in
slugging have begun in Houston, San Francisco and
Seattle, and in many more cities, commuters turn to
carpooling and other forms of sharing rides. But in
the numbers of people involved, "nothing else
like this has developed as it has in D.C.," David
Schrank, a researcher at the Texas Transportation
"Slugging's developed into its own lifestyle
there," he said. His institute, which monitors
the nation's shifting travel patterns, ranks
Washington's congestion the third worst, after Los
Angeles and San Francisco.
Evenings, as waves of slugs spill out of offices
downtown to catch rides back to the lots like Horner
Road, lines can stretch to 30 or 40 and waits to 10
minutes. But mornings this week at Horner Road, lines
flowed without stop and stretched to no more than 10
passengers or cars and to waits of no more than a
minute or two.
Horner Road takes 2,267 cars, nearly all slugs.
There, said Valerie Pardo, a senior transportation
engineer at the Virginia Department of Transportation,
"we've had to add spaces and add spaces and add
spaces." She said: "Sluggers are a very
important part of the success of our H.O.V. lanes.
We've got 25,000 cars using them every day, and
sluggers are a big part of that."
Other than paving lots and putting up Plexiglas
shelters for the slug lines and buses, slugging is
strictly laissez faire.
"We try to stay out it," Ms. Prado said.
The state does not openly promote slugging, she said,
in part because the state could become liable for
accidents or crime in the lots.
Slugging is working and growing, Phil Salopek, a
demographer at the Census Bureau speculates, because
it responds to measures employers have been taking to
fight traffic congestion. Unlike carpooling, which
declined in the 1990's, it accommodates workers'
flexible and alternative work schedules.
"Slugging lets you do that," he said.
"Slugging may work for you, too."
Opinions from Article (30 Apr 03)
Sharing a Ride to Work (but No Talking)
Re "To Commute to Capital, Early Bird Gets
'Slugs' " (news article, April 29), about
"slugging," a form of commuting in which
solo drivers pick up strangers so they can all ride to
work legally in high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, in this
case, in the Washington, D.C., area:
San Francisco area residents aren't just now
experimenting in ride sharing; it's been going on here
for about 20 years.
We don't call it "slugging," just
"casual car-pooling," but the informal rules
and behaviors are the same.
Regarding the radio station issue, most riders and
drivers here seem to favor National Public Radio.
But every now and then, there is a bad lapse in
etiquette from a driver: you get into a car and find
yourself subjected to 30 minutes of the worst easy
That's when you look longingly over at the single
drivers stuck in traffic.
Oakland, Calif., April 29, 2003
To the Editor:
Re "To Commute to Capital, Early Bird Gets
`Slugs' " (news article, April 29):
As a Berkeley, Calif., resident in the late 80's, I
enjoyed free daily rides to work in San Francisco from
East Bay drivers wishing to escape the Bay Bridge toll
and gain entry to its car pool lane.
Back then, we called it "yuppie
hitchhiking," and true to form, those waiting for
lifts near the freeway on-ramps tended to fret most
about the possibility of being chauffered to work in a
Pinto rather than a Mercedes.
GAIL ROSENBAUM DOEFF
Evanston, Ill., April 30, 2003