Every morning at a METRO stop along the Katy Freeway in Houston, several dozen commuters gather and wait. Except they're a little out of place.
"There's a main area where the buses pick up the people who park up at the park-and-ride lot and, not far from there are relatively short lineups, three or four people at most, lined up there for you don't know what," said Mark Burris, a transportation researcher at Texas A&M.
Watch for a bit, as Burris has, and every so often a random car will pull up, two people will get in, and the line will inch forward. Happens over and over again, throughout the morning. The riders call themselves "slugs," the drivers "body snatchers" but in layman's terms, this is carpooling. With strangers.
Burris has been studying the phenomenon for a while now, as have some colleagues. He'd heard about the commuters in Houston and checked it out, then studied similar systems in Washington D.C. and San Francisco, which for whatever reason are the only other places in the U.S. where people do this, at least on a large scale.
It seems like casual carpooling would be a recent development, a byproduct of social media, but it's not.
"It's been going on for 30-plus years up in D.C. and at least 20 in Houston," Burris said. "Most people think it started just some person pulls up in the bus area desperate to use the HOV lane." So, he or she offers a ride to one of the waiting strangers.
That's the type of behavior one would expect in San Francisco, but Houston? Dallas would-be rival's sprawling commuter culture is the same as here and we also have a sluggish system of public transportation but, as far as Burris or I know, Dallas has developed no parallel system of casual carpooling. What gives?
Researchers aren't sure why the practice hasn't taken root in other places, but Burris said they have identified a handful of criteria that are prerequisite. For one, there have to be at least pockets of denser development so you have a lot of people living in a certain area who need to get to the same place, usually downtown, at the same time. It also helps when other forms of transportation are either too expensive or too inconvenient.
"You see a lot of people who are slugging because they would often have to pay an awful lot of money to park wherever they work," Burris said. Also, "the slug line is simply faster than the bus and cheaper than the bus."
Perhaps the most important factor is the existence of HOV lanes that require at least three, rather than two, passengers. People can't afford two life-sized decoys, after all, so the desire to get in the HOV lane pushes people over their aversion to picking up strangers.
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To Burris, slugging is an ideal way of using the existing infrastructure to get around. It takes cars off the road and cuts down on pollution while costing next to nothing. The only real impact is occupied spaces at some public transit park-and-rides, but in places like Houston, those would be empty anyways.
"I'm a big proponent of this and I don't know how you might be able to spread it to other cities but it's an amazingly efficient use of the freeway," he said. "I think what stops it from spreading is the concern people have. You're getting in a car with strangers, and that's a legitimate concern."
Actually, though, slugging is quite safe. During a trip in D.C., he shared a ride with another woman who was so comfortably, and had been slugging for so long, that she was napping in a stranger's backseat before they left the parking lot. In his research, Burris has come across only one serious crime in which an imposter body snatcher picked up a commuter, drove around the corner and stole her purse.
So there's nothing to be afraid of. Suck it up, people