hey call themselves "slugs" and "body snatchers," but they aren't science fiction characters.
They are bureaucrats who zip down highway express lanes with different strangers almost every day. These carpool rebels don't care about forming long-term relationships. They refuse to drop everything to make the evening car pool or to tailor their lives around other people's schedules.
But they are still burning to dash down the express lanes.
So instead of exchanging intimate stories, telling jokes and sharing donuts with colleagues on the drive to work, body-snatchers scrounge around bus stops for enough riders to qualify for the high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes on urban expressways. Body snatchers are in cahoots with slugs-the passengers they pick up. Slugs don't think twice about hopping into a stranger's car. That is, as long as they get a free ride.
Thousands of federal commuters in the Washington area snatch bodies and slug into work every day. This organized form of hitchhiking-a phenomenon grabbing hold in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and other cities-may replace the traditional car pool, which some commuters see as too rigid to accommodate the changing schedules of the American workforce.
"The traditional car pool has already changed out of necessity," says Kathy French, an employee of the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, who picks up slugs on her way to work. "The slug line is a direct result of needing to find a system that gives you the flexibility that your working environment requires.
"It's a perfect system for us to use to get into the city on time, or earlier if we need to, or to get home on time," she adds. "We are not keeping anyone waiting if we are working late, which for me is usual. A car pool locks you in. The bus locks you in with a schedule as well."
Casual carpooling has become so popular that some transportation planners are analyzing its effect on traffic flow. Others are looking for ways to improve the system. But slugs and body snatchers warn experts to lay off. They worry that government meddling could ruin a well-organized, self-policing-and efficient system.
By the Wayside
In 1960, about 43 million workers commuted to work by private vehicle. By 1990, this figure had risen to more than 101 million-an increase of 35 percent over 30 years.
The vast majority of these drivers go it alone. According to the Transportation Department, car pools accounted for just 13 percent of all journeys to work in 1990. Among 39 metropolitan areas, Washington, New Orleans and Los Angeles had the highest shares of car pool trips (more than 15 percent).
Many people who would like to carpool can't because they don't work a traditional schedule.
French, for instance, thought she had "found gold" when she convinced someone in her apartment building to commute with her and her roommate. But the new rider eventually skipped out of the deal because of French's alternative work schedule.
"I work nine-hour days for five days a week and have every other Friday off," she says. "I love that day off and won't change it. But it negatively impacted on the third person. She figured, why pay one-third of the parking if she can't completely enjoy the privilege?"
Clarisse Abramidis, director of litigation support in the Justice Department's Civil Division, gave up her car pool because she couldn't just run off at the same time every day. One day, Abramidis was briefing her boss on an important matter when the clock struck 4:45 p.m. The car pool beckoned, so Abramidis raced out the door, down the elevator and across the parking lot-her boss running alongside taking notes.
"He was a sweet boss," she says. But she couldn't keep expecting him to conform to her car pool schedule. Plus, now she has kids and needs her car for pickups and drop-offs from day care and school.
Alternative work schedules make matching carpoolers more difficult, acknowledges Nicholas Ramfos, chief of alternative commuting programs for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. His office offers commuting information and runs an online program matching riders with car pools serving federal agencies and private companies. Nearly 8,000 people are registered for the service.
"There are a lot of changes in people's lives," says Ramfos. "Now you have more working spouses with day care responsibilities. You need a car because you need to drop off at child care, or elder care. You have a lot of different strains that weren't there 10 years ago."
Ramfos thinks it's unrealistic to ask everybody to carpool or to take public transportation to work every day, but three days a week may be more manageable. The Council of Governments' new Guaranteed Ride Home program offers four free rides home a year in the event of an emergency or unscheduled overtime to people who agree to carpool, vanpool, ride the bus or train, bike or walk to work at least three times a week.
Slugs and body snatchers qualify, too. But they generally resist structured arrangements of any kind, despite the inherently unpredictable nature of casual carpooling.
According to 1993 report issued by RIDES Planning and Research in San Francisco, people in casual car pools "behave in a way which runs counter to normal expectations. In general, people prefer to drive alone rather than share their vehicle with others. In the case of casual carpooling, both driver and passengers must also overcome a natural distrust of strangers."
But the incentive to overcome distrust in this setting is strong. So strong, in fact, that people from all over the country are learning to be more trusting.
Slug lines are springing up in many traffic-clogged cities with HOV lanes. "Casual carpooling thrives where there is a reliable bus backup system," says Lauretta Ruest, senior outreach specialist with the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission.
"If [people] have guaranteed backup they can rely on to come back home, slug lines appear like magic. HOV lanes go hand in hand with this. . . . Initially, people stand there waiting for the bus, and the driver thinks, 'I'm going to the same place, maybe I can get on the HOV lane with two others.' "
The Rules of the Road
Nobody has yet written a book on slug or body snatching etiquette, and the unwritten rules can be difficult to decipher.
On French's first day snatching slugs, she waited in her car until she was first in line. She said, "6th and Pennsylvania." People looked at her, then turned their attention to the cars behind her. She felt foolish. "I thought, 'There has to be some sort of criteria I don't know about,'" she says.
She found out there were slug lines for different destinations. Word of mouth was the only way to find them.
French now has the system down cold. Between 7 and 7:15 a.m., she drives to a slug line in the parking lot of a closed Hechinger's home-improvement store in her Northern Virginia suburb. French waits her turn behind other cars. When her car gets to the front of the line, the next slug in line comes up to her window and asks French where she is going. The slug then shouts the destination to the others in line and gets in the car if he or she wants to go in that direction. The next couple of people in line headed in the same direction climb aboard, too.
Usually, French swipes someone within five to 10 minutes.
On the way back, she rarely needs to pick up a commuter, since she leaves the office after 6 p.m., when HOV restrictions are lifted. But if French leaves work earlier, she swings by a bus station near her office-another known slug haunt-to lure riders going her way. "Hechinger's, Lake Ridge," she shouts from the rolled down window.
Some body snatchers are even more daring. Abramidis searches indiscriminantly for bodies at bus stops. Because the "official" slug lines are far from her house, she just picks up people waiting for buses heading toward the Pentagon. People have begun catching on so recently a little slug line has begun to form off to the side of the bus stop. "My thing is to beat the bus," she says.
In the evenings, Aramidis parks at the Pentagon and walks up to the bus lines to informally ask people if they want a ride. Once in a while, she draws a dirty look, she says, and two ladies in their 50s once refused to respond to her offer even after she raised her voice.
"I felt offended," she says. "They were probably nervous."
Abramidis almost got into a fight with a driver who arrived at a bus stop after her, but hauled away the first available rider. "I waited patiently for 10 minutes for someone to show up," she says. "A car comes out of nowhere and grabs the lady and takes her in his car. She went along; she had gotten a ride with him before. But he was proprietary about her. I was dumbfounded. He violated the rule."
Slugs aren't supposed to cut in line, either. When a car pulls up and announces its destination, the first person in line gets a shot at going, then the second and so on.
Once the slugs have been snatched, etiquette rules inside the car are pretty much up to the driver. "Certain drivers will not talk," says one federal lawyer. "Others won't shut up. You are under their control; you are bumming a ride. Certain people will tell drivers to change the radio station, which I think is bold. They're bumming a ride and then telling the driver what to do?"
Most body snatchers, though, enjoy the company of slugs.
After five years of snatching, Abramidis has met many new people. Writers. Artists. Other government workers. "I pick up people from all over the world," she says. "A musician who had made it out of Russia; they booted him out. He didn't know about the slug line, but he was with somebody at the Pentagon who said, 'Come on.'" Abramidis says that as long as there are express lanes, informal car pools will flourish.
Co-Opting Casual Car Pools
Not all transportation officials are crazy about that prospect. Transit officials in the Bay Area-where about 8,000 people slug into work from the suburbs-see casual carpoolers as abusing transit facilities. According to a 1993 report, sluggers are "encroaching on bus stops" and using BART parking spaces. Body snatchers are accused of stealing riders away from mass transit and causing congestion at pickup sites.
On the other hand, some Washington area transit planners are so enthusiastic about casual carpooling that they're looking for ways to institutionalize the system. A University of Virginia study, "A Methodology for Analyzing the Casual Carpooling Market for Interstate 495," considers increasing the number of casual car pool matches through computerized programs.
Slugs warn that the current, more freewheeling system works just fine.
"Casual carpoolers are very independent and they do their own thing," says Ruest. "They are proud of the fact they could do this without government intervention. Who is to say they shouldn't? This is a free country. They are demonstrating their independence and that's what the U.S. is built on."
Ruest says her goal is to increase the use of multiple-occupant vehicles, "whether people organize it or we organize people. We don't expect to rule everyone with an iron fist. If our job is to get people off the roads and out of single-occupant vehicles and we can provide backup for them to accomplish this, we are all in the same game."
French calls the slug system a "a commuter underground network" that needs no government intervention to help it run more smoothly. "This is the perfect example of what creative things commuters can do when they have to come up with a system to fit their schedules. We probably don't need to change a thing about it."
It will be a miracle if casual carpooling escapes some type of regulation in Washington, a city that thrives on government control. But this new breed of carpoolers-brave enough to ride with total strangers-probably will fight any attempted takeover.
In the meantime, slugs and body snatchers will continue to cherish a system that lets them come and go as they wish on the express lanes.