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Article - It's a Slugfest

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    Posted: 04 May 2006 at 12:50pm
Article in the TCS Daily
http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=042203D

By Radley Balko 22 Apr 2003

Its always fascinating to read about how makeshift markets always find ways of emerging, even in the unlikeliest of places. On April 21, for example, this site featured a piece by Pete Geddes, which explained how markets and entrepreneurship took root in, of all places, German POW camps in WWII - with chocolate and cigarettes as currency. Geddes also told of how open-air auctions became prevalent in our most recent war with Iraq, due to thinning supply lines and a shortage of cigarettes. Here in Washington, D.C., we have another unique example of how two parties, each possessing something the other wants, have spontaneously found a way to help one another. Whats especially fun in this example is that both parties are using one another to circumvent subsidized carpooling, a silly attempt at environmentally friendly behavior modification otherwise known as green or HOV (High-occupancy vehicle) lanes. Slugging works like this: Most of the main thoroughfares in and around Washington have lanes that are HOV-restricted. You need two or sometimes three passengers to use them. As a result, drivers sit in gridlock agony along the I-395 while vast swaths of highway go unused. Over the years, at a number of spots throughout the city and suburbs, slug lines have emerged, checkpoints where drivers can stop and pick up enough passengers to legally make use of carpool lanes. Drivers get to use the HOV lanes, slugs get a clean car instead of a Metro bus or crowded train, and both save big chunks of time off the commute. In Washington, slugging has been around since the onset of HOV lanes in 1971, and has been a staple of Washington commuter culture since the late 1980s. In fact, an entire slugging subculture has emerged, complete with an explanatory website, vernacular, etiquette, and, of course, a book. The website even offers a lost and found where slugs can reclaim umbrellas, purses and scarves inadvertently left with scrapers (the slugs term for drivers). Slugs are entirely self-governed. Slug etiquette, for example, includes items like never leave a woman standing alone in a slug line, dont converse unless the driver talks first, and in any case, no talk of religion, politics or sex. Slugs and scrapers self-police, because every slug who breaks a rule turns off a potential ride home to the system. The same goes for scrapers. Despite the hundreds of slug transactions that have happened every day for decades in D.C. there has yet to be a documented case of slug-related theft, assault, rape, or murder. Only the occasional gripe about inappropriate music or bad driving on the slug message boards. Imagine, an efficient, beneficial, self-correcting system of transporting people, and it all happened without a federal grant, an impact study or the oversight of an office of D.C. bureaucrats! In fact, slugging emerged precisely because of the inefficiency put on D.C. commuters by HOV restrictions. As the website says:
Suffice it to say that for being an unregulated system without written rules, the concept of slugging has a very structured approach that operates by the will of the people.
It is a wonderful market rejoinder to city and state attempts to engineer commuter behavior. Even politicians have embraced the trend. So why slugs? The story behind the word is as interesting as the phenomenon. According to the website, in sluggings infancy, Metro bus drivers would routinely mistake slug lines for lines of Metro bus passengers (for convenience, slug lines are usually aligned closely with Metro bus routes). Bus drivers got frustrated, and so coined the term slugs as a modern incarnation of the longstanding bus driver headache: passengers who drop fake coins slugs in lieu of bus fare. In the mind of the city transportation employee, modern slugs just like the counterfeiters are simply looking for a free ride home. Some environmental groups have hailed slugging as a credit to their carpooling efforts it does after all put more traffic in the HOV lanes. But every slug riding shotgun in a Buick is one less body on the Metro, or on a bus. That same Buick burns off the same number of miles to and from the city whether its filled with slugs or not whether it putters along 395 proper, or zips down the I-395 carpool lanes. The only difference: with slugs, the city loses out on Metro or bus fare. Slugging isnt a credit to HOV restrictions, its an act in defiance of them. Washington thus far seems to be the city where slugging is most prevalent, though slug cultures are emerging in Houston and San Francisco. Officials in Seattles King County, Washington actually attempted a city-run spontaneous slug system. It hasnt gone so well, of course. Slugging cant be planned. It just happens. Slugging is a great example of how market forces will trump the efforts of heavy-handed bureaucrats and central planners. So long as there are unused stretches of road, angry commuters will find ways to put their cars on them.
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