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Rise of the slugs A

few minutres short of 8:30am, along with my step- son, I approach a residential street corner in Oak- land, California. Owen is in GQ-quality threads but

I’m wearing a raggedy backpack over my old raincoat as we near two cars, engines idling, on Oakland Avenue. We get in a 25-year-old Volvo, where a 60ish white male

reading the San Francisco Chronicle occupies the driver’s seat. Neither he, nor Owen, says a word as he shifts into drive and heads for the Bay Bridge and San Francisco. Owen, indeed, glances at me with disfavor when I break

the protocol of “California Casual Carpooling” and begin to talk to the bald spot on the back of the driver’s head. Owen does this daily “slug” – as we Easterners call it – but I’m only on the coast for a few days. We could afford a taxi, and BART is an easy option, but I want to see how humans react when a community asks itself to consider the true cost of single- occupancy driving with toll roads and bridges. Though “ride boards” aimed at long-distance travel were

a constant in my college days, a recent surge in “slugging” or “casual carpooling” or “flex-pooling” is the direct effect of cities and states moving toward HOT and HOV (high occu- pancy toll or vehicle) lanes in efforts to decrease the numbers of single-occupancy automobiles.

DRIVING DOWN COSTS In the last couple years, the Capital Region has opened toll lanes around Washington, DC, but neither they nor dozens of HOT lanes around the country have seen the expected monetary income. Individual drivers apparently aren’t as worried about a few-minute congestion delay as planners had thought, and other drivers – like the retired professor driving Owen and I – simply find someone needing a ride to pare down, or eliminate, the toll. Alone, the rush-hour toll on the Bay Bridge is US$6 but

with two riders the fast HOT lanes cost just US$2.50. “It’s the time savings more than the money,” our driver

smiles into the rear view mirror as we zip past hundreds of waiting vehicles at the toll plaza. Later, when he drops us off at Fulsom Street in San Francisco, he refuses the couple of dollars I offer him: “Send it to the mayor and tell him to use it for the library!” he replies, I suspect only half-joking. Having always hitchhiked and picked up thumbers, casual

carpooling seems both rational and irrational to me. I regu- larly offer my long drives on Zimride, Craigslist and Carpool


World in the hope of picking up someone who needs to go wherever I have to drive and I’ve signed up for RideShare programs in two Virginia cities. Slugging, I know, benefits both parties, and most importantly from my perspective, it lessons pollution and congestion by getting cars off the road at the most traffic-intense times. But the trust that just “somehow” arriving at some corner to be dropped off some- Vol 8 No 3 North America

Carpooling is not the freewheeling ideal of naysayers’ nightmares; there are strictly adhered to rules, codes of conduct (for drivers and passengers) and feedback websites

Randy Salzman visits Northern California to see how ridesharing, or slugging, is starting to change the way San Franciscans think about their commute

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