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    Free Transit and Slugging

    In What Does Free Really Cost, I discussed the problems of free parking. A few weeks ago, in Should Transit Be Free?,  Mark Brown, who has been documenting his car-free lifestyle at Car-Free Baltimore, discusses the many advocates of free transit, and summarizes their arguments:

    The fare free transit arguments are:

        * Reduction in operating costs (fare collectors, payment system terminals would be abolished)
        * Increased ridership
        * Broader demographic groups would ride because of convenience and low barriers to entry
        * The environmental, social and health benefits (positive externalities) of each new transit rider would more than compensate for lost fare box revenue
        * More political power/representation due to massive increases in ridership

    We tend to treat highways as public goods and transit as a private commodity. Closing highways because there’s no money in the budget to maintain them is unheard of. Cutting transit service is done all the time – just look at Charlotte and Atlanta lately.

    Free stuff always sounds good on the receiving end, but I find these to be better arguments against free roads than for free transit. Free roads encouraged sprawl, and free transit might encourage other unsustainable behavior, or crime. As with parking, I suppose I have a Tragedy of the Commons mentality about providing a free service that requires that much energy and maintenance.

    Some transit already seems free. Miller-McCune put Slugging — The People’s Transit online today.

    “I don’t care where we go,” yells the driver. “I just need two people!”

    And off the three go toward the highway — and the suburbs — complete strangers, with not the least concern for personal safety, trying to shave 20 or 30 minutes, maybe more, off their afternoon trip home. “People are cooperating … to commute?” says Marc Oliphant, underscoring the novelty of what is going on here. “It’s like the opposite of road rage!”

    Oliphant has brought a dozen local and federal transportation officials to the sidewalk here to gawk at the commuters. No one would believe this sight unseen: People here have created their own transit system using their private cars. On 13 other corners, in Arlington and the District of Columbia, more strangers — Oliphant estimates about 10,000 of them every day — are doing the same thing: “slugging.” ...

    “To me,” marvels Oliphant, a facilities planner with the Navy, “it’s an illustration of the ideal for government.”

    He’s drawn to slugging as a creative vision that would begin to ease the eternal mess of urban gridlock. Society always reaches first for the infrastructure fix — the costly highway expansion, the new route for the metro rail. But what if government could just nudge more people to do what they’ve done here, creating their own commuting cure within the existing system? Federal Highway Administration studies suggest that free-flowing traffic can be restored on a clogged highway simply by removing 10 percent of its cars.

    To get more drivers into a self-sustaining casual carpool, though, officials would have to confront slugging’s built-in complication. They’d have to figure out how to stimulate slugging elsewhere without spoiling its defining feature: Government is not involved, or at least it looks not to be.

    But of course government is involved by defining and patrolling HOV lanes. Without the incentive of saving time, people would rather drive alone. I looked up last night:

    The system of slugging is quite simple. A car needing additional passengers to meet the required 3- person high occupancy vehicle (HOV) minimum pulls up to one of the known slug lines. The driver usually positions the car so that the slugs are on the passenger side. The driver either displays a sign with the destination or simply lowers the passenger window, to call out the destination, such as "Pentagon," "L’Enfant Plaza," or "14th & New York." The slugs first in line for that particular destination then hop into the car, normally confirming the destination, and off they go.

    No money is exchanged because of the mutual benefit: the car driver needs riders just as much as the slugs need a ride. Each party needs the other in order to survive. Normally, there is no conversation unless initiated by the driver; usually the only words exchanged are "Thank you" as the driver drops off the slugs at the destination. ...

    It’s hard to believe that slugging has been around in the Northern Virginia and Washington, DC, area for about 35 years! That’s right; slugging debuted in around the 1975 timeframe, shortly after the HOV lanes were opened to carpools and vanpools.

    There are a very few similar self-organized systems, such one in the SF Bay area. Why slugging?


    When slugging was in its infancy, commuters stood at the bus stops, waiting for a driver to pick them up. Bus drivers, thinking these people were waiting for the bus would stop to pick up the passengers only to be waved off, frustrating many of the drivers. As this event became more and more frequent, bus drivers began recognizing the real bus riders from the fakes. Because the people weren’t really waiting for the bus, drivers began to simply call them "slugs." This definition seems to make sense because these people weren’t real bus riders or even real car poolers in the usual sense of the word. They were, just as the name implies, counterfeit riders or slugs. Hence, the term was born.

    What are the drivers called? Body Snatchers, of course.

    I'm a bit surprised, but not completely. Back in the late 70s, during a transit strike, my roommate in Alexandria VA used to hold up a sign for downtown DC, and generally had no trouble finding rides. When times get tough, people will adapt.



    In the Philippines Donal, we call those Jeepney's and they are always packed. But it is a way for people to get to and from work. I am sure I took some pictures, I will put them on Facebook and you can see them there.

    When I was there I read the highest energy costs in the world are in the Philippines. And these people really are the least able to afford such prices. Which is why often times out in the barrio you see folks hooking up their appliances to car batteries and that is how they get themselves power.

    I head back in December this year and will head out to the barrio to take some pictures of those kinds of things.

    Nice blog Donal, really nice blog.


    All fine and dandy talk until it comes to moving infants and young children along with the adults in the U.S.. When involving them in fast transit we must have expensive cradles for each one with exactly the right kind of protuberances and buckles and bars which much also face in exactly the right direction at a certain angle with a requisite thickness of padding and plenty of space surrounding the cradles. We were just so ignorant in the past thinking that a parent's lap wasn't an abusive and dangerous place. And my god, some people actually used to let children ride as a bunch in the back of a pickup truck.....

    And my god, some people actually used to let children ride as a bunch in the back of a pickup truck.....

    Hey...I used to do that. It was pretty fun.

    been there, done that, no big deal. And yeah it was fun, except when it rained or was freezing cold or both.

    Small buses. Holds a lot of people and can run on a larger variety of fuels or can be electrified.   There was talk a while back of removing the fairs from the triangle bus system in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area. Do not know if that came about though but the argument was like you sighted above. That is was simply getting too expensive to collect and process the fairs.

    But there is a large part of the population on both ends of the political spectrum who detest the idea of free anything. Well except for them of course.

    The ruling class  is just who may expect their traffic related delay in an ambulance to be the proximate cause of their bad medical outcome, since they are likely to have first class intervention at every other step of the way--thus, this is their big crapshoot, whereas the poor can get fucked over a hundred times after they are admitted.

    If it becomes too much trouble, the ruling class will just be medevaced… (much easier than fixing the underlying problem)

    I thought that was fixing the underlying problem. My mistake...carry on.

    oddly, since convenience and overall time expended is often cited as the great fail of public transit, when it's free (like spare the air days round cali) people in exponentially greater numbers find it convenient enough.even tho it's no more convenient than it was when they charged.

    It's terminally stupid to try to finance out of the fare box--huge transaction costs, particularly in bottlenecking the flow of passengers to regulate the collection of fares.  Imagine open buses that can be boarded at twenty sets of stairs all round the chassis.    In chinatown (special case) the busses spend 1 1/2-2  minutes at each stop, and drive for 30seconds between.

    DC Metro has those bottlenecks, and it is a PITA sometimes, but I read once that Metro is the largest concentration of cash or cash-once-removed in the city, so they must be making some money.

    On the local light rail we have no fare boxes, as such, hence not much of a bottleneck. You buy a daily, weekly or monthly pass, or a Smart card and must present it when challenged by an MTA officer. The pass can also be swiped on MTA buses. "Fare inspection" seems to happen about once every ten rides. They can write you a ticket, but they mostly just put you off if you don't have a valid fare.

    You're describing a trolley, which is an older sort of light rail. A lot of people swear by open trolleys, and we used to have a lot of them before GM bought them up and ripped out the tracks. I think a pass system would work with them, too, but most current transit is aimed at getting suburban riders quickly in and out of the city rather than gently in and around the city. That's why I see transit as another potential enabler of sprawl.

    Y'all might be interested in this:

    In general, buses are way more uncomfortable than rail. Our in-city buses are all the types with hard seats, and grab rails. They'll rattle your false teeth out. Our suburban express buses are private carriers, more like Greyhound or tour buses. The seats and the routes lend themselves to a more comfortable ride.

    Notice that Bus Rapid Transit is not the same thing as most bus systems. When done right, it makes boarding much faster and those delays you talked about much shorter. Comfort, of course, depends on how much the powers-that-be are willing to invest.

    Well, this morning my wife dropped me off, and we pulled into the station just as the train was rolling in. I was able to jump out of the car and into an open doorway in less than thirty seconds. And a gaggle of bus riders were hot on my heels. BRT seems to promise better suspension instead of steel tracks. I wonder how the costs compare.

    I hitch hiked to college for two years. I think it was even against the law at that time.

    I even got a ride in the limozine used by the President of our University; the guy that wrote the military/industrial complex speech for Ike. ha

    This is an interesting turn of events. But i still don't think it would be out of line for the driver to ask for a couple of bucks!

    DD's car used to have that bumper sticker: "Ass, Gas or Grass - Nobody Rides for Free"


    I'm must sayin you could give the chauffer a sandwich or something. hahaha

    I don't know the pros-and-cons going into it, but public buses here in Coeur d'Alene are free. I haven't noticed resulting crime sprees or other apparent socially damaging impacts. FWIW.

    It's kind of off base to talk about "slugging" in DC as if it's a purely organic thing. As you correctly note, between DC, MD and NoVa tons of resources were invested to create HOV lanes, suburban parking lots for exurbanites to make a partial commute, light-metered on ramps, etc. There is infrastructure which promotes the behavior that didn't just appear out of thin air (nor was it free). Equally important was an investment made in a decades-long sustained marketing campaign selling citizens on the idea of ride-sharing. Maybe your recollection is different, but I remember the PSAs being all over the place. A lot of preplanned effort went into creating the conditions.

    My personal dream for the future of transit is a hybrid:  A mini maglev propelling small programmable-to-destination electric vehicles on existing roadways.  Electricity usage would be metered to each vehicle.  The best of many worlds:  personal space and schedules without having to drive but able to when necessary or desired (in separate lanes, of course).   

    There could be a free base usage subsidy allowance per person per month or year, surplus marketable, of course.

    Yes, electricity production in as many ways as possible is the future.

    Thanks for the Free Transit pitch, and links - I've been banging on this one for years, and this has been a timely reminder to me to push it again! 

    The "benefits" list though, is a bit too short, and I think a bit of the purism of the transit activists is leaking over the wrecking their case - something I have found before on this front. See, the people who shift from cars to transit are beneficiaries, but maybe not the biggest ones. For instance, they will tend to be people who are squeezed for dollars, right? So they'll save some cash, but put up with more inconvenience. 

    However, it's the OTHER DRIVERS who stand to "save" the greatest cash value. If you can hoover even 10% of the drivers off the road, the congestion benefits, in time saved alone, are mammoth. And for higher income drivers, the value they place on their time is enormous. Someone making $500 a day, for instance, is going to value the time saved at amounts almost certainly larger than the cash savings of the people doing the switching.

    So.... we should get off the purism and just bloody RECOMMEND this shift. 

    There's also an enormous benefit to the local economy. The families making the shift have greater disposable income, and the overall local economy has more cash banging around inside the jar (since running transit systems is cheaper than cars.) Annnnnd so on.

    BTW, "free" stuff is really really great, and we greens need to unlearn some of the tripe that got shoved down our throats these past decades, where everybody became a wannabe economist, and pushed to have things priced, and to use "market mechanisms." Transit should be like education and medicine. Free. Full stop.

    Annnnnd (so on)

    ":So on":You can occasionally catch some new pussy offa public transit, whereas the chances are that any pussy in your private vehicle is not new pussy, and may already be alienated pussy...

    the people doing the switching.

    Considering that the congestion reducing switch they are making is out of beaters, you'd think the aesthetic improvement alone would motivate the ruling class to get behind this.  They won't have to look at my 86 F150 anymore.

    I think one of the major road blocks for cooperative mass transit is convenience:

    • How far must one walk to a rail station or bus stop?
    • Are they covered to protect one from the weather?
    • Is there enough room for everyone?
    • Is there a schedule to let one know when the train or bus arrives and in which direction?
    • Is there an accurate clock there as well?

    But this would be a cost to be factored into the price of a rail or bus pass. Also, there needs to be security. Here's an article about a person getting beaten in a U-Bahn metro station in Berlin:

    url :

    Ticketing is another issue too. I remember back in the 90's I needed to use the bus system because of a broken leg...I couldn't drive. However, I was able to pick up a bus pass at a 7-11 for anywhere from 1 day to 30 days at a cost far less than if I paid every time I used a bus. But  how much cheaper would it be if both the price for fuel and the ridership both increase?

    Finally, there's the issue can I get from home to work in a reasonable time? When one considers having to wait for the first bus, then getting to a transfer point before the other bus you need leaves and then walking the final leg, would it be faster and easier to just drive and put up with the traffic? I remember back in the 80's using the bus system in San Diego. It was excellent! The busses ran very close to the schedule and you could go just about anywhere in the area for loose pocket change. Unfortunately, you had to go to the city center in most cases to get a transfer to another route. Sometimes you were lucky and could catch a ride on a lateral route. However, I was using the bus more as a tourist than a working stiff so I had no idea if it was a viable alternative to driving.

    What it all boils down to there would have to be a lot of costs added into the price of a ticket to make people feel secure of their person and possessions if ridership increases. So can the cost and inconvenience overcome the urge for someone to make the break?

    In Michigan we have free car pool lots all over the state. They're in the most populous counties, of course, but they work just as well in the out-counties where people have to drive greater distances to work. Where I live, many people have a 50-60 mile commute or more. They park their cars in the free lots (sometimes just a pull-off on the side of the road, but marked with state signs) and take turns driving to the "city". 

    Detroit has a pathetic and shameful rapid transit system, mainly because of the power of the auto companies.  They thwarted any transportation that didn't involve single cars coming off of their assembly lines.  I keep waiting for some enlightenment there, but none is forthcoming, so car-pooling is about as close as we can get to dealing with too many cars, too much pollution.

    I would expect that most people having cell phones would make the day-to-day organizing of a carpool much easier. For that matter, it would be great to have a smart phone app that told told the bus or van or car pool driver that you needed a ride, and told the passengers when the bus or van or car was actually coming.

    Or if you just want to make public transit more convenient, stick an interactive GPS on each bus or tram, and let would-be passengers instantly and accurately detect where the next one is on a route and when it will arrive.

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