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Commonsensical slugs

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Wednesday, Aug 2, 2006

The slug-rider phenomenon in the Washington D.C. metro area is not new, but it remains fascinating to reporters as an organic response to traffic congestion and state incentives to carpool. The premise is that solo drivers need a companion in order to take advantage of the HOV lanes. (HOV equals high-occupancy vehicle; “high” being two in this case.) Drivers would pass bus stops and try to pick up riders, who became known as slugs. The article linked above connects the name to phony tokens used to bilk the subway system, but it seems an especially apt name in the way it encapsulates just how America views individuals who don’t drive—grubby, slow-moving objects. The article also lauds slug-riding as a “system of casual car-pooling that moves thousands of workers from the suburbs to the city, with no money changing hands and no official government involvement,” thus enlisting it as evidence to support the libertarian fantasy of spontaneous order. But there’s government involvement aplenty—the state builds the HOV lanes, maintains them, and patrols them to ensure their utility. And they provide and maintain the “park and ride” lots for the slugs to ditch their cars. Anyway, it seems the preferred market-libertarian solution is for private corporations to maintain the road system and to introduce variable pricing according to demand (“congestion pricing”), as was attempted on SR 91 in southern California. The D.C. HOV lanes are still part of a government-subsidized transportation scheme that distributes benefits bought by tax revenues to those who live in suburbs and drive cars (this providing an incentive to buy and drive a car, to take advantage of what government has made a priority, which in turn makes roadbuilding an even greater priority for government. And on and on the cycle goes.) The slug-rider system seems less a marvel of spontaneous civil engineering than a desperate, anxiety ridden response to inadequate public transportation. When the MTA strike hit New York last winter and stringent carpooling restrictions were enforced, a slug system rapidly sprung up in the outerboroughs, but no one was convinced by this that the MTA workers could stay on strike forever. Though it initially seems cheering that strangers can work together to maximize efficiency, ultimately it starts to seem like a dismal state of affairs when you think about it, riding in a strangers car but (in some cases) being forbidden to speak, as though you had become ballast. Or waiting in the rain to be picked up and being rejected by drivers who can pass you by or refuse you passage for no apparent reason. Or finding yourself described as a bad driver on a Web site and having slugs refuse you. Slug evangelist David LeBlanc insists that in slugging, “What always prevails is common sense,” but the phenomenon seems to prove that common sense has been delimited to instrumental rationality, to reducing other people to objects to be manipulated for your own convenience.

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