- Slugs await you, drivers. (Vimeo/StephanWeigand)
The D.C. area is home to thousands of slugs. They creep, they crawl, they wait, and they're ready to come for your commute — but only if you open the car door and welcome them. The slug community of D.C. has been around for decades and relies on what it would call a win-win situation. Sluggers wait by the side of the road and get a free ride from willing drivers into the city; the driver gets to ride in the faster high-occupancy (HOV) lanes on the highway.
"It's free and it's fast," says David LeBlanc, author of the 1999 book Slugging:The Commuting Alternative For Washington DC and creator of slug-lines.com. "The system itself works incredibly well — it's so efficient."
And these slugs are nothing new — they've been hitching rides through northern Virginia and into the District for more than a quarter century. I became especially curious last night when I spoke to a mother and daughter at a dinner party in Fairfax. Both have spent years slugging into the city and didn't blink an eye at the concept. "When did you start slugging?" I asked the mother. "Since the '70s," she replied casually. The first HOV lanes appeared in the D.C. area in 1975, and the practice likely first began to take off after then. But as LeBlanc told me, many in D.C. are unaware the form of commuting even exists as it's so grassroots, unofficial, and rooted in a tradition of spontaneous, casual relationships ... and with strangers, no less, with whom slugs become accustomed to commuting alongside every day. The idea of getting into a car with strangers is one of the biggest hurdles for people who consider slugging, LeBlanc said. The mother I spoke with in Fairfax County last night cited security as one of her concerns now.
A whole culture of etiquette and order has organically grown around the practice of slugging, which takes place largely "along the I-95 corridor" in the D.C. area, according to LeBlanc. He moved to Woodbridge in 1996, he told me, back when "there wasn't any information about slugging." Within months, he learned of the idea by word of mouth during his long commutes to Rosslyn. Various slug lines exist, which take riders to any number of destination points in the area, and many people hold signs to show where they're going. Crowds of slugs line up, and various cars arrive, often at northern Virginia commuter parking lots. And how many slugs? LeBlanc mentions a VDOT estimate of several thousand from 2005 but suspects it's off. There are no formal studies or estimates, he says, but he has his own two eyes and years of experience slugging.
"I personally think it's more than 10,000 a day," LeBlanc tells me.
My favorite part of LeBlanc's site is the rules of slugging etiquette. Consider a few here:
* Slugs do not talk. This is not completely true, because there are times when conversation is acceptable, but normally slugs must wait for drivers to initiate it; otherwise, there is no talking. One note about this rule. Even though it may sound impolite not to initiate conversation, there are some good reasons why this rule exists. The driver (and sometimes the slug) isn’t interested in getting to know the other person. On the contrary, all that is wanted is a quiet ride home. For many riders, it’s a chance to think, sleep, or read the paper. For the driver, it may be the only chance to listen to the news or relax to his or her own music. The last thing both riders and drivers want is to feel obligated to carry on a 30-minute conversation. It’s a good rule. Now, with that being said, sometimes conversations do take place, but you’ll just have to use your own judgment as to when it’s appropriate.
* No conversations of religion, politics, or sex. Enough said...
* No money, gifts, or tokens of appreciation are ever offered or requested. A driver doesn’t expect the riders to help out with gas money. The relationship between the driver and rider is mutually supporting. The driver needs the slugs just as much as the slugs need the driver. If a driver wants help with the gas, he should organize his own car pool. He shouldn’t ask a slug to pitch in for helping him access the HOV!
These rules have come from countless different conversations with fellow sluggers, LeBlanc said, as well as his own observations. Most are common sense. "I love the no talking rule," he says, referring to the forced conversation of carpools he'd been in as well as the rigid schedules and coordination involved. "With slugging, I don't have to deal with that."
LeBlanc hopes to stay become more involved with the slugging community and help expand information about how to slug safely and efficiently, as he first started doing in the late '90s. His site also collects stories about slugging going back years as well as a message board and lost-and-found section for local sluggers. He speculates about starting a non-profit for purposes of tracking and education. Countless people in the transient D.C. area remain unaware of slugging, and information about it has only emerged in bits and pieces. Why, for instance, are these commuters even called slugs? Bus drivers saw these long lines of people waiting along the side of the road only to be baffled when no one climbed into the bus.
"Bus drivers started calling the people waiting fakes — like slugs," LeBlanc tells me. "Slug" is a term for a fake coin.
The government has observed and helped slugging along in small ways. There's understanding of the practice when it comes to signs and parking around Arlington County. It's the right, small amount, LeBlanc says, and any more government involvement could hurt the natural element of the commuting style. Other concerns, from the idea of HOT lanes to BRAC, also exist and open up new questions about how slugging will continue. But slug life has its dedicated advocates, and I don't imagine the practice will disappear any time soon.
Next time you see people waiting on the side of northern Virginia highway, just remember these 10,000 slugs making their way through D.C. traffic with free, easy, and long-established slug-line commutes. "I know it's not for everybody," LeBlanc says with a laugh.