on casual carpools, or “slugging”

Emily Badger has a useful article on casual carpools, though it would be a little more useful if she — or her editors at Miller McCune — didn't keep implying that public transit is somehow the enemy.

Casual carpooling — or "slugging" as some of its partisans like to call it — is a perfectly rational response to very congested freeways with High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes.  At informal queues, usually located near an onramp, motorists who want to use the HOV lanes meet up with other commuters who want to ride the lanes as passengers.  These passengers fill the empty seats in the motorist's car so that they can all travel in the HOV lane.  The phenomenon appears to happen where and when an HOV lane offers quite dramatic travel time savings, as it does on certain Washington DC freeways and on the San Francisco Bay Bridge.  It happens only in intensive commute periods, because that's when the HOV lane's advantage is substantial.

For many, it's fun to think of casual carpooling as some sort of revolt against conventional transit.  The term slugging, Badger explains, arose as an insult uttered by "bitter bus drivers" who saw their waiting passengers disappearing into private cars.  Miller McCune's headline describes slugging as "the people's transit," as though conventional transit is something else.

In fact, casual carpooling or "slugging" is largely compatible with conventional transit.  Really, the two are mutually beneficial.  The casual carpool markets in San Francisco and Washington are both parallel to rapid transit lines, but the trains are still full.  As for competition with peak bus services, the long one-way commuter bus run is one of the most expensive services a transit agency can operate.  Often, each bus can be used for only one run during each peak, so all the costs of owning and maintaining the bus must be justified by a single trip.  Drivers for these peak buses are also expensive, because there are costs associated with the short shifts that peak-only service requires, and because drivers must usually be paid to get back to where the shift began before clocking out.     

Long commuter bus runs can still make sense, but they are very expensive compared to conventional two-way, all-day transit.  If casual carpooling reduces the demand for them, the effect on transit is to flatten the overall peak that transit has to serve, increasing its potential cost-effectiveness and improving the utilization of fleet.  It's especially helpful on the AM peak, which is usually the sharper of the two.

So slug away, if you need to feel that you're attacking something.  I prefer to call it a casual carpool, because that term describes what it really is.  And I see no reason not to welcome them.  In fact, when new HOV lanes are developed, the casual carpool phenomenon should be planned for, both by ensuring that there are safe and logical pickup points and also by counting casual carpool trips in the mobility benefits of the lane.

Of course, such planning would contradict the libertarian fantasy — heavily stressed in the Miller McCune piece — that casual carpooling is a "government-free" form of spontaneous social organization, a kind of Tahrir Square for the cul-de-sac set.  In fact, "slugging" is a freely chosen response to the design of the government-funded transport infrastructure — just like everybody else's commute.   

23 Responses to on casual carpools, or “slugging”

  1. In Brisbane March 10, 2011 at 12:02 am #

    It never ceases to amaze me where these libertarians think roads, freeways and HOV lanes come from. The Road Fairy? The Department of Main Highways stork?
    They come from Government intervention and planning! Even the private toll built ones have to be approved and are often planned for by government (In Brisbane, both the Airport Link and Clem 7 toll tunnels are government directed, but private sector is building and by and large financing them).
    Jarrett, it would be really interesting though to ask about your opinion on freeways and highways. Are there a legitimate place and role for these freeways and motorways in modern cities?

  2. Rob March 10, 2011 at 12:23 am #

    I don’t have a lot of direct experience with casual carpooling, but it seems to me that it is most likely to be effective when there is are designated pick-up and drop-off places, probably with parking or transit connections at one end and some circulation at the other. That could happen by chance, but is more likely to happen if someone plans for it.
    And it also seems to me that personal security issues are important, and are most likely to be addressed by someone planning to include visible, defensible space at the pick up and drop-off points, or cameras, or perhaps a registration system of some sort. Even the cost sharing among participants could be made easier if someone thinks ahead to create a financial exchange for casual carpool participants.
    There is probably a threshold of participation needed before drivers think to stop and pick people up, and riders feel waiting is safe. All of that can probably happen organically if the right conditions happen to exist, but in most places they don’t. Somebody, maybe a government, maybe a parking lot owner, maybe a transportation management association – but someone, probably needs to think through the practical issues to make it happen most of the time.

  3. Zoltán March 10, 2011 at 1:05 am #

    It’s claimed in the article that “No one likes how they get to work.”
    Actually, I’ve met a whole lot of people using the commuter rail around DC that really enjoy their commutes. People talk about the peaceful time their train ride gives them, and Most afternoon trains I’ve ridden have had a given place where those inclined to socialise can sit, and drink if so inclined. So let’s not generalise that every commute is a bad experience.

  4. Zoltán March 10, 2011 at 1:14 am #

    Having put a lot of thought into whether slugging can be officially encouraged, I’d concluded that it’s probably not a good idea to do any more than put facilities in place that allow it to go on safely and without disrupting traffic.
    That’s because of the sort of personal safety concerns that the article argues are a worry for some outsiders, but actually not a significant problem. Regardless of the reality, there are all sorts of complications if the state or a company tries to encourage something that’s questionable in personal safety terms. I suspect that if they tried, it might well be decided that it’s actually best to discourage the practice, not encourage it.
    So I’d argue that slugging can only ever exist as a casual social phenomenon, but that’s not necessarily any bad thing. Organisation isn’t really needed where money isn’t exchanged (instead, all parties “give” each other a time benefit, and slugging etiquette explicitly forbids exchanging money), and not only are no schedules, routes or registration procedures required, but if they were required, the drivers probably wouldn’t bother at all.

  5. Aritokyo March 10, 2011 at 1:54 am #

    Indonesia has this idea in practice already. In Jakarta, they have “jockeys” – extra passengers who help commuters circumvent carpooling rules for a small fee.

  6. Hyjal Azeroth March 10, 2011 at 2:50 am #

    The Tahir Square for the cul-de-sac set! Beautiful!

  7. Wad March 10, 2011 at 3:01 am #

    @In Brisbane, libertarians know where roads come from, but their ideological narrative has created a great deal of cognitive dissonance.
    It then requires a deal of logical contortions. The solutions they propose are often even more contorted. The more committed libertarians propose a utopian society in which private actors can create a simulacrum of a society adapted to governance, policy and contract.
    Libertarianism is more of a theological construct than an ideological or social-science proposition. Libertarianism is driven more by a morality of the individual than any practical or empirical concern.
    Mark Rosenfelder of zompist.com has a great takedown of libertarianism, and the passage relevant to this discussion is called “Single villian ideologies.” It is at:

  8. Dave March 10, 2011 at 5:46 am #

    The Commonwealth of Virginia and the localities still today spend a lot of money on commuter lots to provide the parking for this to work, beyond the initial investment in infrastructure for the exclusive lanes themselves. http://potomaclocal.com/traffic-transit/commuter-parking-deal-done/
    Some slug lines are today created to meet a specific demand of some commuters (and to start out always have the redundancy of existing transit service), but still fail to work: http://potomaclocal.com/news/stafford/new-slug-line-a-non-starter/
    In my opionion, that particular line mentioned in the story was never going to work because it required sluggers to cross a dangerous portion of an arterial where pedestrians are roadkill.
    @Wad, re: “great takedown”
    Straw man, anyone? There are much more comprehensive and detailed analyses out there of the particular vein of libertarianism attacked in that sloppy diatribe. For a more thorough and considered review, read Kevin Carson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Carson)

  9. Alex B. March 10, 2011 at 6:00 am #

    Many of the slug pick up spots in DC are co-located with commuter bus stops, giving sluggers a chance to make a choice on their return journey – either ride the commuter bus back to the same park-n-ride, or ride as a slug for free.
    In Virginia, outside of DC, there was talk of turning the HOV lanes into HOT lanes. This plan has since been shelved (for now), but there was lots of concern that such a plan would kill the slugging tradition by removing the incentive for slug drivers to offer up their seats. Instead of paying that cost to use the congestion-free lanes by giving someone else a ride, they would pay that cost by paying a toll. One more argument that the policy matters a lot more than most people think.

  10. Alon Levy March 10, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    That last paragraph is golden, Jarrett.
    If I had to guess, I’d say Badger’s opposition between carpooling and transit comes from a recent article in the NY Times about the decline of carpooling since the 1970s. While the article is about carpooling and not transit, it notes that in Washington, where carpooling used to be prevalent, carpooling is still in decline while transit use is up.

  11. Anon256 March 10, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    I believe this is more traditionally and generally known as “hitchhiking”. Having hitchhiked in both the US and Europe, I feel that it’s definitely underrated, but one thing it isn’t is reliable, and I don’t see how the applications described in the article would be any exception. There’s really no telling when you get in line how long it will take to get to the front, and at worst you might find yourself still in line when rush hour ends and drivers stop needing the HOV lane. People hitchhiking for leisure travel typically embrace this sort of uncertainty, but it’s hard to imagine many daily commuters tolerating it even on their trip home, and for their trip into work in the morning they’d surely have to leave enough time for a backup plan.

  12. anonymouse March 10, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    I think it works well in DC in particular because of the many government employers there, who have very large concentrations of workers going to the same place at the exact same time. It’s part of what makes Metro work too. And in the Bay Area, “slugging” was actually, in a way, subsidized: carpools were exempt from bridge tolls, so the “slug” is effectively paying the driver $4 for the trip, but entirely with government money. Incentives matter and, no matter what the libertarians say, most of the incentives are set up and managed by the government.

  13. david vartanoff March 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    The SF Bay experience is instructive in several ways. The Bay Bridge started “3 free” during morning rush in an attempt to get more warm body throughput when the lanes were at capacity. The casual carpooling infuriated AC Transit which called out the cops to harass drivers lurking at transbay bus stops. They settled on having designated carpool pickup locations near but not in bus stops and the volume flourished. AC’s transbay ridership plummeted, only recovering a decade or so later when BART was allowed to strike causing massive traffic jams. After the strike many commuters stayed w/ AC coincident with their acquisition of inercity luxury coaches for the service. Recently the Metropolitan Transportation Commission sitting as the Bay Bridge Toll Authority began charging for carpool lane use. Early ## did not show major changes in usage,

  14. Joseph E March 11, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    @ David Vartanoff, re: “The casual carpooling infuriated AC Transit.”
    I find it odd that AC Transit was upset by the carpoolers. Isn’t the Transbay service very expensive to run? Almost all of the riders will be headed in the peak direction, and the buses can get stuck in terrible traffic on the bridge, so it must require a high subsidy per mile, considering that tickets are cheaper than BART. Wouldn’t AC Transit save money buy running frewer Transbay buses?

  15. david vartanoff March 11, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    I think odd is too charitable. At the time I went to a Board Mtg to say they should market EB only monthly tix, and noting that busting your own customers was bad PR. As I said before, Transbay service was shrinking until the BART strike in 96. After that, AC hired a since let go GM who pushed the intercity bus purchases. I believe you are correct that they are a high cost service. AC in their required periodic Short a Long Term Plans always claims that no local service is sacrificed to run Transbay. I am skeptical at best. Until recently they had been holding monthly meetings in the CBD to address rider concerns. Nothing of that sort is done for local riders who are in the main a captive market–transit dependent.

  16. Danny March 13, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    It is actually quite different from hitchhiking, and yes, Americans know what hitchhiking is. There is a backup plan for slugging, and it is typically a bus. A slow, infrequent, and often unreliable bus.
    In fact, slugging never even would have emerged as a form of spontaneous order if there wasn’t a transit system in place…and it has nothing to do with the existence of a backup plan. It has to do with the routes that the buses represent.
    To demonstrate: If I am a driver and I want to take the carpool lane to work…and my drive to work parallels the 8EX line, then I know that the best place to find someone to ride with me would be at a bus stop for the 8EX line.
    The transit system (or more correctly, the failure of the transit system) is the explicit reason why slugging exists.
    Without the existence of the routes, it would be too costly to find someone that happens to be going where you are going…and without the inability of the transit system to accommodate the desires of their passengers, there would never be any demand to hitch a ride with a complete stranger.
    This simple fact is what makes this comment section so damn amusing…so many people here laughing in unison about libertarian ideological cognitive dissonance, when they should be appalled that the “libertarian” response exists in the first place. The “libertarian” response is a direct response to the failure of government. Yes, you heard that correctly…the libertarians are the realists here, and those mocking them are the ones living in a fantasy world.

  17. EngineerScotty March 13, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    I think much of the political analysis on both sides is silly–one of my neverending frustrations is that transit support/opposition is often times a position taken to support (or signify membership in) a broader ideological coalition, rather than on the merits. Of course, complaining about “failure of government” in a place where the “government” lacks either a mandate (or funding) from the public to provide quality service is very much begging the question, but whatever.
    That said, Danny does raise a good point–slugging frequently occurs where the parallel transit service is less than desirable. Inside the DC metro area and the inner suburbs, the transit is excellent; but go outside Metro’s reach and it deteriorates quickly–and the various bus systems in DC have poor reputations. The Washington DC area probably has one of the larger splits between the social acceptability of bus and rail that I can think of in North America, with “the bus” (regardless of agency) being considered dirty and dangerous (and in some parts of the district, it is).
    Of course, this doesn’t explain San Francisco–BART is a clean, safe, and reliable (and socially acceptable) way to get from most points in the East Bay into the city–my suspicion is that most sluggers in the Bay Area aren’t headed for San Francisco but for various points in the Silicon Valley that BART doesn’t reach.

  18. Danny March 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    Actually, it explains the Bay Area as a whole almost perfectly, for the simple fact that the Bay Area has one of the most comprehensively well funded transit systems in the US…their failure is their ability to keep costs under control.
    They have a wide gauge rapid transit system with rolling stock costs about 4x the national average, construction costs 2x the national average, labor costs almost double the national average. And that is using the US as a baseline comparison, knowing that our costs are already astronomical when comparing with other countries of similar levels of development.
    And the true bottom line result: 20 minute headways, and San Francisco being the only commuter destination on the system. If Calgary, Edmonton, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis or Houston had the exact same level of funding per resident that the Bay Area has, you would find grade separated rapid transit or light rail systems with 5 minute headways with stops in every major neighborhood.
    Yes…the Bay Area has the mandate, and they have the funding, and they still fail.

  19. Wad March 14, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    @Danny, the Bay Area has the mandate and funding … primarily for BART. Part of having a BART train is a funding regime in which BART gets first dibs at all possible funding.
    Rather than forming a comprehensive transit network, BART and local bus systems are adversaries when it comes to funding. You’ll notice this especially when transferring at a suburban station.
    BART eats the lunch of local bus service. This is why you have trains with 15-20 minutes in the suburbs, with connecting buses that run hourly or less.
    Even if you control the Bay Area’s exorbitant costs, the most expensive services per passenger will still be the local buses. BART will still have the better farebox recovery and the lowest expense per passenger mile.

  20. Art Busman March 15, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

    What’s with all this libertarian bashing?
    “In fact, “slugging” is a freely chosen response to the design of the government-funded transport infrastructure — just like everybody else’s commute.”
    Sorry, but that’s like saying a group of people refusing to join the draft is a freely chosen response to the design of a government-funded war. That makes no sense. Take away highway funding and buses, and people would collaborate to build and maintain roads and share rides. I really hate the implication that centralized planning is the only way to operate society. In the Philippines and South Africa there are successfully para-bus operations despite government run transportation. And no, it’s not freely chosen responses to the design of government funded transit, it’s an successful private alternative. Transit was VERY profitable in America until government subsidized road building, oil interests, automaker protectionism, and oil-auto conglomerates conspired to destroy rail. Quit trashing libertarians. This is a transit not political blog.

  21. EngineerScotty March 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    That makes no sense. Take away highway funding and buses, and people would collaborate to build and maintain roads and share rides.
    And one way that people frequently cooperate to do these sorts of things—is to form governments.
    Ignoring the IGMFU attitude that many modern libertarians (particularly the ones who wield significant political influence) exhibit in practice; one issue I have with most flavors of libertarianism is the treatment of government as some sort of foreign presence, apart from the people. Some governments are indeed like that–imposed upon an unwilling populace via force of arms–but many exist with the consent of the governed. If you want to complain that the “government” of Northern Virginia (and the multitude of agencies thereby comprised) has mismanaged transit within its jurisdiction, go ahead–but please note then that the government includes the voters there, who have through the ballot decided that transit service is not a funding priority. These same voters have decided, either directly or through elected officials, that freeways are a priority, and have further decided that carpool lanes are a good way to limit overconsumption of freeway capacity. Given that, it’s not surprising that slugging occurs.
    But the implication that absent an pre-existing government, the people are more likely to turn to market-based mechanisms (i.e. those without recourse to the powers to pass laws and lay taxes), or the premise (not necessarily yours) that such arrangements are “better”, is shaky. In many cases they do exactly that–but in many other cases, especially when market solutions produce suboptimal results, the people do things like charter transit agencies.
    By the same token, many rural communities in the US have volunteer fire departments, an arrangement in which citizens “pay” for fire protection in time (and by occasionally putting themselves in peril). Larger communities usually find it necessary to charter professional fire departments, funded with taxes. Which is better? Depends on the conditions on the ground.
    I really hate the implication that centralized planning is the only way to operate society.
    I agree; and I hate the inverse implication–that the market is the only way to do so.
    Quit trashing libertarians. This is a transit not political blog.
    I can sense a forthcoming blog post from yours truly on this topic. In principle, I agree–my main focus is on outcomes, and I consider issues of ideology secondary, and partisan politics tertiary. I care about quality transit outcomes; I care far less about who or what provides it. I don’t have any problem with private-sector transportation, other than ensuring that the private sector skimming profitable routes doesn’t lead to the starvation of the less-profitable ones.
    On the other hand, of the two dominant political coalitions in the United States, one has demonstrated rank hostility to non-auto-based transit in general, public transit in particular; and it’s this coalition that most libertarians tend to align with. (Some Libs, of course, maintain strict independence from both major parties; very few, however, throw their lot in with the Democrats). The reasons for this hostility are varied: libertarians and quasi-libertarians bring a suspicion of publicly-financed anything to the party; the coalition has long been bankrolled by energy interests; and rural voters who are not interested in urban infrastructure. (And a big part of the coalition, unfortunately, consists of rural bigots who utterly despise two of the dominant demographics in US cities–blacks and left-leaning yuppies–and religious fundamentalists who consider cities to be hedonistic dens of iniquity.) Given that situation–a major party which considers the subject of this blog as something that ought to be “drowned in a bathtub” and frequently issues overheated rhetoric comparing public transit infrastructure to various forms of tyranny, its hard to avoid partisan politics completely. At least not when discussing the United States.

  22. Danny March 15, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    I think that your perspective is a bit tainted…not that you are wrong about Republicans. It is true, Republicans are outright vile to the idea of government funding of anything that they don’t personally use (such as transit)…but so are Democrats. We wouldn’t have as terrible of transit in this nation if transit weren’t a bipartisan red-headed step child. The difference is that there is a subset of the Democratic party that favors and promotes transit…but they are too weak to make any meaningful difference.
    And IMO, the failure of transit in Northern VA has very little to do with the voters of that region. The voters have spoken with their feet and their ballots…they love transit and want more of it. Their problem is that they depend mostly on the Federal Government to fund it. And in the end, that means trying to convince the John Boehner’s and Nancy Pelosi’s (and a few hundred other people that don’t care about you) to throw you a bone once every few years. To put it mildly, they don’t care.

  23. EngineerScotty March 16, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    I think that your perspective is a bit tainted…not that you are wrong about Republicans. It is true, Republicans are outright vile to the idea of government funding of anything that they don’t personally use (such as transit)…but so are Democrats. We wouldn’t have as terrible of transit in this nation if transit weren’t a bipartisan red-headed step child. The difference is that there is a subset of the Democratic party that favors and promotes transit…but they are too weak to make any meaningful difference.
    Depends on the Democrats. Certainly, there are quite a few in the party who are indifferent to transit (and a few that are probably worse than that), but you don’t see the same utter hostility to it that you do in much of the GOP. (And there are meaningful differences between Speaker Boehner and his predecessor on this issue). Of course, the present “tea party” attitude towards the subject is a recent phenomenon; Ray LaHood was a Republican officeholder (and I assume still is in the GOP) prior to joining the Obama Administration, and his positions on the subject are quite reasonable. But right now, one of the two major political parties is dominated by a significant faction of crazies who think that light rail is communism; the other is not.
    With regards to Northern Virginia–I suspect that a big problem for them is not Congress, as many cities and regions with active transit programs have to deal with the same Congress–but their own downstate legislature and congressional delegation. At least right now, the Tea Party wing of the GOP rules the state of Virginia, and they obviously have different priorities.
    Whether the present federal funding model (any large project requires federal funding, as local funding sources are seldom enough and the federal dollars are “free”) is a good way of doing business, is an interesting question.