How Are You Helping the Slugs?

Denis Wilson
Posted on July 3, 2013

When I was down in Miami Beach for the LCT Leadership Summit, I ended up shooting the breeze with Virginia operator Dan Goff after dinner one night. I believe we were on the topic of the astounding traffic congestion problems in Washington, D.C when Dan asked me whether I knew what a “slug line” was.

“A what?” I asked.

Slug lines or slugging are the terms used to describe a form of commuting unique to the Washington, D.C. area. Essentially it’s a form of carpooling, where workers commuting into the city pick up complete strangers. It’s a highly organized system with unique rules and etiquette and which moves thousands of commuters each day.

And it’s free, no less. The passengers, or slugs, simply stand in line in specific locations and drivers pull up announcing their destination with a sign or by calling out. The first slug or slugs in line for that destination jump in the car. It’s a mutually benefiting relationship: slugs get a ride to work and drivers benefit from being able to use the 3-person HOV lane.

Are there risks involved with riding with a perfect stranger? Sure. They could be a mass murder or high as a kite. But slugging must serve a very important need that outweighs that risk, or else it wouldn’t have been around for nearly 40 years. (Read more here on the unique etiquette of slugging, such as no conversation unless initiated by the driver.)

Necessity is the mother of invention. And the need to get to work in an inefficient urban transportation system is a powerful one. An ongoing transit strike in San Francisco is forcing thousands of commuters to stay home or turn to the tech driven, on-demand ride industry, which happens to be born of the Bay Area startup scene.

Uber has 50% more cars on the road now than a week earlier, while ride sharing service Sidecar saw a 40% jump in rides, according to a report by Bloomberg Businessweek. And Flywheel Software, which provides more than half the city’s cabs with a mobile application that lets consumers hail and pay for rides using smartphones, also has seen record usage.

With the shutdown of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, known as BART, these new solutions for the same old slugs are being put to the test.

The D.C. slugs are a testament to the fact that urban transportation is a problem. Sidecar and Lyft just happen to be using the mobile and social technologies able to connect those with needs with those that can serve those needs. (Some are calling it The Collaborative Economy.)

I have to admit, there have been times that I’ve felt like a slug. When I moved to Philadelphia, my car soon broke down and my commute went from 20 minutes to about an hour on public transit. If the technology had existed, I certainly would have tried it.

—    Denis Wilson, LCT East Coast Editor

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