Washington, D.C.’s Secret Carpool Cabal Is a Day by day Slug Fest


From the June 2023 situation of Automobile and Driver.

Each metropolis has its secrets and techniques. Washington, D.C., might have greater than most, however I wasn’t there to dig up our bodies, corporeal or political. My curiosity in visiting our nation’s capital was to find out extra a few covert society, a company of carpoolers who use codes and phrase of mouth to work round D.C.’s infamous traffic jams and exorbitant tolls. Underneath cherry blossoms gentle as desires and within the lengthy shadow of the Washington Monument, I set out searching for slugs.

The origins of slugging are murky, buried someplace within the smoggy ’70s, when the Shirley Freeway (I-395) from Virginia to D.C. turned the first U.S. freeway to implement a high-occupancy automobile (HOV) lane. These early carpool lanes had been strict, initially requiring 4 occupants (now three), so commuting drivers would fill their seats by swinging by the bus cease and sniping riders. Ultimately, the bus traces had extra hopeful carpoolers than mass-transit riders, and the bus drivers started referring to the fake passengers as false cash, often known as slugs. Undeterred by the slander, the slugs claimed the nickname and the observe grew in recognition, creating set areas and traditions. When the Virginia Division of Transportation partnered with the personal toll-road operator Transurban within the early 2000s, multiperson autos had been exempted from the costly charges to encourage carpooling, thus protecting the quick lanes flowing free. Slugging is symbiotic—no cash modifications fingers, however all events benefit.

slug fest

Roy Ritchie|Automobile and Driver

Had I got down to study the secrets and techniques of the slugs just a few years in the past, it would not have been a lot of a problem. In keeping with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ 2019 State of the Commute report, 20 p.c of all carpools had been slugs. There have been quite a few pickup and drop-off spots and an lively web site detailing any route modifications on account of building or traffic closures. Then the pandemic hit, and the slug traces had been salted. Within the 2022 report, solely 4 p.c of carpools had been slugs, and my preliminary on-line analysis got here up towards deserted boards, bounced-back emails, and 404 internet hyperlinks. The slugging group appeared to vanish in a single day, the Roanoke Colony of the twenty first century.

Nothing is as irresistible as a thriller, particularly one with automobile tradition at its heart, and at Automobile and Driver, we could not cease fascinated about slugging. You simply get in a stranger’s automobile? There is not any cash? How? Why? I hopped a flight to D.C., picked up a pearl-white Toyota Crown with a again seat sufficiently big for clandestine carpoolers, and set off searching for solutions.

slug fest

Legend has it that the tip of the Washington Monument’s shadow at rush hour factors on to a slug line.

Roy Ritchie|Automobile and Driver

First cease, the Pentagon. With roughly 27,000 workers, massive parking heaps, and a Metrobus lane, the Pentagon was one of many early slugging locations and one of many few lively slug-line Fb teams I used to be permitted to affix. There are lots of slug-line Fb teams, however many are, ahem, sluggish in posting or fiercely protecting of their group. Most of my be part of requests and all my messages to admins went unanswered. The Pentagon appeared to nonetheless be slugging, with common posts cryptically requesting riders for “234” or providing instructions to “the Pork Chop.” I made a decision to test it out in hopes of decoding these secret messages.

For Drivers, D.C. Is No Los Angeles

What stood out to me as an Angeleno driving in D.C. was, first, the pace limits are low, and other people principally abide by them. Second, it is a good factor they do as a result of the roads are as tangled as a filibuster, with road names divided into quadrants, roundabouts that exit onto bridges, and fixed building. Even Google gave up, the map on the Crown’s heart display screen flickering in countless recalculation. It did not assist that none of my slug-line pickup areas had been onerous addresses, simply intersections pulled from screen-shots on the defunct Slug-Strains.com web site. At this level, as I used to be parked subsequent to an indication warning that my automobile and particular person had been topic to look, a police automobile pulled up subsequent to me.

slug fest

Roy Ritchie|Automobile and Driver

slug fest

Roy Ritchie|Automobile and Driver

I defined to Officer Bush (it did not appear prudent to ask if he is associated to the previous presidents) that I used to be not doing something nefarious however was merely silly, misplaced, and in search of the slug-line pickup. He pointed me to a car parking zone one half-roundabout over. He hadn’t used slugs, he informed me, however he knew individuals who had. “You possibly can’t communicate to anybody,” he stated. “The riders simply give the motive force a token, and that is how they know the place to go.” This final bit proved a crimson herring, however the first half is true. I left the Pentagon with one piece of the puzzle. The slugs did exist.

My subsequent lead got here from one of many Fb pages, a hyperlink to a WhatsApp group targeted on journeys between Horner and L’Enfant. I did not know what a Horner or a L’Enfant was, however I crossed my fingers and threw a message into the fray. “Hello, you’ll be able to delete this, however I am attempting to study extra about slugging. Would anybody care to speak for {a magazine} story?” A couple of minutes later, my message was gone, “deleted by admin,” however not earlier than I would had a response, “You possibly can name me tonight. —Jasmine,” and a telephone quantity.

slug fest

Does this seem like a reliable carpooler?

Roy Ritchie|Automobile and Driver

Get in Line

That afternoon, photographer Roy Ritchie and I went again to the Pentagon. Simply earlier than 4:00 p.m., office staff and army personnel began lining up alongside the curb of the car parking zone Officer Bush had identified. A silver Lincoln Navigator pulled up, two ready riders climbed in, and it pulled away. A blond girl walked towards a grey Tesla. She held up her fingers in fast succession, two-three-four. The driving force nodded, and he or she received within the again seat. An older gentleman in a darkish jacket joined her, and with its express-lane-friendly trio, the Tesla left. My preliminary makes an attempt to converse with ready slugs met with failure. The riders had been sweaty and drained after strolling from their offices, earbuds in, keen to depart. Drivers stored their home windows up, avoiding eye contact as Ritchie and I skulked on the periphery. We felt like creeps. I had higher luck after I modified my strategy from journalist to rookie slug. “I need to do that tomorrow,” I informed a lady in a lavender pantsuit. “Will folks be upset if I am new?”

“They solely care about getting the place they should go,” she answered. She’d began slugging earlier this 12 months, when a bus strike disrupted her common commute. The person subsequent to her was attempting it for the first time on the recommendation of a good friend. A hybrid Camry got here to the curb, and so they nodded to me and took off. By 4:30, the car parking zone was sparse, however I felt confident we had sufficient data to attempt a slug journey the following morning. However first, I would hear what Jasmine Smith needed to say.

slug fest

The slug traces on the Pentagon have official indicators. Most different areas are tougher to search out.

Roy Ritchie|Automobile and Driver

I do not blame the Pentagon slugs for his or her reluctance to speak, however I certain appreciated Smith’s willingness. “Oh, I all the time like telling folks about it as a result of it is such an odd idea,” she informed me that night. “Perhaps anyone will get impressed, get it organized, and make an app.” Smith proved a superb supply, having slugged as each a rider and a driver quickly after transferring to the D.C. space in 2016. She acknowledged the scene’s weirdness, admitting that, at first, she could not think about something that may persuade her to get right into a stranger’s automobile. “I rode the bus, which picked up on the similar place as a slug line. Vehicles would drive up, folks would get in, they’d drive off, and I believed, ‘Now these individuals are attending to work at no cost, and right here I’m standing on this bus line paying.'” Ultimately, her curiosity received, and he or she gave it a attempt. “I received into town, and I by no means stopped.” Slugging not solely saves cash however is best than customary carpooling since you’re by no means left excessive and dry on account of another person’s poor time administration.

Nowadays Smith drives, however she nonetheless makes use of slug traces. With out them, if she takes the faster-moving toll lanes, her commute prices practically $60 a day, simply in charges. Drivers farther out in Virginia would possibly pay $40 or extra every method with out two passengers. Slugging makes quite a lot of sense. “Did anybody inform you the foundations?” Smith requested earlier than we ended the decision. “No speaking. No telephone calls. No loud music.”

Life within the Slug Line

The following morning, guidelines in thoughts, we left D.C. whereas it was nonetheless darkish. Our vacation spot was the Route 234 park-and-ride lot, 30 miles outdoors of city. Not solely did it fulfill my curiosity concerning the coded Fb messages, but it surely additionally proved to be one of many busier afternoon Pentagon locations, so I used to be hopeful we would rating a morning pickup there.

slug fest

Enjoyable truth, the U.S. Senate has stored a secret sweet desk within the Capitol for the reason that late ’60s.

Roy Ritchie|Automobile and Driver

Even at 6:00 a.m., the traffic coming into town was daunting. Working down the middle of I-95, the vehicles within the specific lanes whizzed by, taunting these crawling on both facet. It takes just one expertise caught within the D.C. jam to know how an hour alone along with your highway rage could make a half-hour with just a few well mannered strangers appear far more interesting. We pulled in close to the bus cease, and there they had been, in crisp work garments, with papers beneath their arms, the ready slugs. I opened the window and drove up. “Pentagon,” I stated, attempting to behave mature and reliable, managing at finest a nervous whisper-squeak. As two riders stepped ahead, I added in a rush, “I am writing a narrative about this simply so you already know, in case you do not need to be a part of it.” They shrugged and received at the back of the Crown. Identical to that. No discuss. The entire course of took lower than a minute.

The first few miles of the drive had been eerily quiet, simply the low hum of the Toyota’s powertrain, the slightest of shimmies because it tried to resolve between gasoline and electrical operation whereas we crept ahead in stop-and-go, and the press of Ritchie’s digital camera. As soon as we received within the specific lane, I broke the regulation. “We’re writing concerning the D.C. commute and slugging,” I stated, waving on the digital camera in clarification. With permission granted, Ameeq Khan and Delane Aguilar turned chatty, bemoaning the excessive price of toll lanes and bus fares, peppering me with questions concerning the Crown, and celebrating the sluggish return of slugging post-COVID. Khan works at Georgetown College and has been slugging since 2006, usually taking a journey to the Pentagon, then grabbing a bus for the final leg to his office. Aguilar works on the Pentagon and, like a number of others I met, began using throughout the bus strike however plans to stick with it, because it’s each inexpensive and 10 minutes faster on common.

slug fest

Slugging works in D.C. due to its distinctive mixture of a small metropolis heart, clogged freeway arteries, and costly toll roads. The HOV 3+ lanes can save commuters tons of of {dollars} and hours of sitting in site visitors every week.

Roy Ritchie|Automobile and Driver

“What is the weirdest factor that is ever occurred to you as a slug?” I requested Khan. He laughed and recounted a journey with a lady whose automobile was filled with meals. “Like groceries?” I requested. “No, like unopened emergency meals. Half the again seat was cans of beans. I requested what she was getting ready for, and he or she stated, ‘I have been there as soon as, and it will not occur once more.'” Ritchie chimed in, “Been the place, hungry in traffic?” Khan shrugged. Some mysteries stay.


Toyota Crown: The King of Slugs?

slug fest

Roy Ritchie|Automobile and Driver

The Toyota Crown had been on hiatus within the States for the reason that Seventies, however in Japan, it did the job Ford’s Panther platform did right here, serving as taxi, police automobile, and selection transportation for presidency officials. The brand new model coming to the U.S. is effectively suited to ferrying a number of adults, with its tall physique and an out there Platinum trim that includes leather-based upholstery and a glass roof. It is a quirky and intriguing automobile, effectively aligned thematically with the quirks and intrigue of slugging. Our top-trim slugger, with a 264-hp turbo 4 and electrical motors combining to supply 340 horsepower, begins at $53,445. The entry-level Crown, which has a 236-hp hybrid powertrain with a 2.5-liter inline-four, kicks off at $41,045.

Headshot of Elana Scherr

Senior Editor, Options

Like a sleeper agent activated late within the sport, Elana Scherr didn’t know her calling at a younger age. Like many ladies, she deliberate to be a vet-astronaut-artist, and got here closest to that final one by attending UCLA artwork college. She painted photos of vehicles, however didn’t personal one. Elana reluctantly received a driver’s license at age 21 and found that she not solely beloved vehicles and wished to drive them, however that different folks beloved vehicles and wished to examine them, which meant anyone needed to write about them. Since receiving activation codes, Elana has written for quite a few automobile magazines and web sites, masking classics, automobile tradition, know-how, motorsports, and new-car critiques.    

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