Trucks at Work

A slug's life

"Getting there isn't half the fun; it's all the fun." -- Robert Townsend

At its core, all the hoopla about "global warming" can get boiled down to two single solutions in this country: we need to use less energy, of which driving less is a huge component. Drive less and we cut way down on pollution levels and the creation of so-called "greenhouse gases," while being able to give OPEC a much deserved boot in the rear end. That's because 70% of the oil we use on a daily basis in the U.S. goes to feed our transportation needs alone.

Now, here's the thing: most of the "driving reduction" we'll need to do must come from the non-freight side of the ledger. Our freight networks are vital linchpins to the economy, so they can't be touched by and large: and frankly, trucking's done it share and then some, with all the anti-idling laws, emission controls, and freight flow efficiency efforts being tackled today.

That's why Joe & Jane Commuter must now step up to the firing line, because they are the ones with the most predictable routes -- and they are the whole reason the term "rush hour" exists in the first place. There's no reason to drive solo anymore on these trips to and from the office -- it's highly inefficient and, frankly, we've got more than enough ingenuity available to address this issue. That's where "slugs" come in.

Let me explain: I've commuted from various points within the Northern Viriginia suburbs into Washington, D.C. and other locations most of my life -- even did it to go to high school -- by almost every mode available: walking, bicycling, bus, subway, commuter train and (yes) driving. Today, I telecommute by working from a home office, and while that's been the best option for me, out of all my experiences, many workers can't do it. That's why "slugging" may prove to be the most efficient and cheapest way to get to and from the office -- a local term that means "ride sharing" everywhere else in the U.S.

Here's how it works: you pull into a giant parking lot, park your car, and get in line. Drivers pull up and announce where they are going -- the Pentagon, 14th and Constitution, etc. -- and then several people climb in with them. This enables the driver to use High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes and scream into downtown in 30 minutes as opposed to an hour or more crawling along on the traffic-choked local roads and highways. I know, I know: violates the big rule mom always taught you ("Don't take rides from strangers") but it works, and works well.

I slugged for almost two years in the late 90s and it worked like a charm. I almost got stranded only once in all that time, whereas I suffered delays by subway and train every week -- and getting to PAY for those delays in the process, mind you. This isn't to say "slugging" is perfect, not by any means. But it's a far simpler solution than building miles of high-cost rail lines or adding more lanes -- with our tax dollars, I might add -- and it gets lots of cars off the road at peak times, just when you need to reduce traffic volumes.

"Slugging" also opens a window on the human experience -- a strange window at times (one I;ve wanted to nail shut more than once, I'll admit), but a good one, too. A veteran slug would always take aside a new face to gently explain the "rules" of slugging -- because, as a slug, you are the lowest form of commuting life. Slugs aren't allowed to initiate conversation with drivers, nor can they voice an opinion about the radio station/music selection/etc. Drivers don't ever make side trips, either, to drop you off at a gas station so you can pick up your car, for instance.

Yet these harsh rules obscure the gallantry among slugs and drivers. For example, a pregnant woman is always passed up to the front on the line and a woman is never allowed to be the last one in line, left alone, day or night -- a male slug must stay with her until she gets a ride, or, if stranded, accompany her to public transportation. Though only three riders are necessary to qualify for HOV status, many drivers filled up their cars as much as possible. One woman at the wheel of an airport transport van (God bless you wherever you are!) would always take 15 riders or more if needed. Many drivers that stayed at work late made it a practice to "sweep" pick-up points in the city at night after HOV restrctions were lifted, just to make sure no slugs were left stranded.

There is also, sadly, the downside to slugging. Like the Mercedes Benz driver who plunged along at 100 mph one day, while checking his email. Another used to turn the A/C on full blast for a minute, then off for 10, creating a horrible sauna/ice box ecosystem in her car that gave me a migraine. Some drivers dropped the F-bomb and other profanity without a second thought -- one did it while listening to evangelical preaching on the radio, if you can believe it (I rode with him twice -- yikes!). Slugs passed the word on such drivers, gradually "freezing" them out of riders.

Then there's just the plain strange. One driver of a grey Chevrolet Impala tried to enlist my aid in freeing the Aliens our government held at Hanger 18 out in Area 51. "We need to release them before their brethren invade our planet," he implored me. (I passed the word FAST on this guy).

Still, despite the ups and downs, slugging worked -- despite rain, snow, holidays, you name it, I always got a ride close to where I need to go while my commuting costs dropped to near zero. You can't beat that combination -- and it helped reduce emission levels, traffic volume, and energy consumption all in one fell swoop.