December 02, 2002
Slugs and body snatchers

Fascinating story in today's Chron about the practice of impromptu carpooling. People driving to work from the outlying areas will cruise through some of the larger Metro bus stop areas looking for people to share a ride into downtown. By picking up one or two passengers, they get to take the HOV lanes, which can cut their commute time by more than half. The riders, naturally, save the cost of an express bus, which is $3.

The nation's first HOV lane was built in 1973 in northern Virginia. It was on those same congested arteries around the nation's capital that instant car pooling took off in the 1980s. Today, it's a mini-industry. There are two Web sites, newsletters, an etiquette list and even a book on the topic. It also has its own weird-sounding name: "slugging."

At the three dozen listed pick-up and drop-off points around Washington, D.C., riders are called "slugs" and drivers "body snatchers." The terms are said to have originated as derogatory descriptions assigned by bus drivers, who likened the riders to counterfeit coins, or slugs, used to gain a free trip. As for the drivers' moniker, well, that's obvious: They're looking for warm bodies to meet the HOV requirement.

The San Francisco area also is known for slugging, but the practice apparently is rare elsewhere.

I'm moderately surprised that more of these people haven't tried to find a regular carpool among their neighbors and coworkers. Tiffany belongs to a vanpool, with a van provided by Metro and subsidized by her company, along with about a dozen other coworkers who live nearby. It's made her 30-mile commute a lot easier and cheaper.

But that's a nitpick. This is a pretty cool example of finding a creative solution to a nagging problem. The only unfortunate thing is that some people don't quite understand the big picture:

While some love the camaraderie, others long to be on their own again. Anil Pande, who drives to the Addicks lot from Katy to get a ride to his job at 4 Houston Center, said he can't wait until the freeway is widened.

"If the road were better, then I'd much rather drive," he said. "But I-10 being what it is, everyone is forced into this. There's not a lot of choice. You find people who have been stuck in the freeway hours a day for months who then decide, 'I might as well switch to this.' "

And if all those people who have been forced into instant carpooling start driving themselves into work when I-10 is widened, traffic will begin to suck as it does now, just as all of the opponents of widening predict and for exactly the reasons they give. Why do you think one-passenger-per-vehicle is discouraged?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 02, 2002 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

I'm sorry, Chuck, but you're just not going to convince me that there are enough Anils that the current 24 lane plan is not going to reduce congestion. They said that about US59 to Kingwood and they were wrong. It's not the best drive in the world, but nothing like it used to be and nowhere near as bad as I-10.

Posted by: R. Alex on December 2, 2002 10:55 AM

I don't drive 59 North to Kingwood, but the obvious route for my commute does include I-10 outbound from the Heights to Beltway 8. I can tell you from having driven that commute for some long time before abandoning it in favor of surface streets that no amount of widening will solve the I-10 problem, for exactly the reason that Chuck cites.

I'm old enough and a long-enough-time Houston resident to remember the last time they did the widening to end all widening on the Katy. Widening advocates said the exact same things then that they say now. They sold us a bill of goods on the last widening and they're selling us a bill of goods this time around, too. And when they try to sell folks the same bill of goods in 2015, I hope the people who are fooled this time won't be fooled again.

Meanwhile, here's a hint: if you live in Katy, your commute to downtown will be an hour or more. You do not have a $DEITY-given right to a 15-minute commute. Take responsibility for your choice of where to live and how to commute, and stop shoving the consequences of YOUR bad decisions on everybody else!

Posted by: Ginger on December 2, 2002 12:41 PM

So long as we have the ability to alleviate a person's commuting time from Katy to downtown, why not do it? There haven't been any good arguments put forth for the proposition that widening the Katy Freeway would do a significant amount of harm to anything, and we can be certain that it would reduce congestion. Alex is right -- the argument that far fewer people would carpool and that would negatate any lessening of congestion is a canard, as past history bears out.

It is ridiculous and self-serving to assert that widening won't reduce congestion. Is is a panacea? No - there is no such thing. Nobody is claiming that the widening plan will solve all area traffic woes for all time. All that it being claimed is that it will reduce drive times, and all germane factual evidence (as well as common sense) shows that it will. Arguing for the counter-intuitive position is usually difficult, but in this case it is nearly impossible.

And what is being proposed as the alternative? Light rail? Don't make me laugh. Metro's own transit studies show that a rail line from downtown to Katy wouldn't reduce congestion significantly. You'd be far better off with HOV lane improvements and improved bus service. Widening, combined with those improvements, would serve the Houston area best.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on December 2, 2002 12:56 PM


I used to live off Memorial and the Beltway. I've driven the route at all hours of the day. Yes, there are a lot of cars. There are a lot of cars on US59, too. More on I-10, but they're proposing to make I-10 a LOT bigger than 59. Will they need to do something else in 2015? Possibly.

But what will it look like in 2015 if we just leave it where it's at? If people think longer commutes are really going to deter people from buying houses out there, they're wrong. The building out there will stop when they reach Sealy, regardless.

Unlike Owen, I'm not opposed to light rail. I'm not opposed to anything that will help tackle this problem. Saying that expanding I-10 isn't a part of that solution is unrealistic, at best. The idea that if we just stop building roads we'll get the great mass-transit system that will eliminate the traffic problems for the some-odd 4M and growing populace in what is geographically the second or third largest city in the country is overly idealistic.

I'm not sure who sold I-10's 6 lanes and 4 feeder lanes as the end-all be-all solution, but this isn't an additional couple of lanes, this is an entire restructuring of some 20 or so that will last, though not indefinitely, a while. It won't be a traffic-free haven, but it'll certainly keep it from the parking lot that it is now (and 59 formerly "was always going to be").

Posted by: R. Alex on December 2, 2002 1:54 PM

I'm more than a little intrigued by the story's etiquette reminder that those looking for passengers only want you for your body. Finally ... my day has arrived!!!

Posted by: Greg Wythe on December 2, 2002 2:02 PM


You're in favor of light rail in spite of the fact that transit studies show that it will have virtually no impact on traffic? You're losing me there. I'm not against all rail transit (rail works in high-density cities), it's just that I'm in favor of mass transit solutions that actually solve our transit problems. Bear in mind that even Metro Chair Robert Miller said that light rail would never pass a cost/benefit analysis compared with other proposals.

Again, Alex, carving out the compromise solution doesn't always produce the best results. Rail isn't the solution, although I'll admit that improved rapid bus service and expanded HOV lanes should be a part of any regional transit plan. The inclusion of rail into the mix only takes away funds from programs even Metro itself has admitted are more effective in reducing congestion. So if that is your goal, it is illogical to support commuter rail.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on December 2, 2002 3:02 PM


I'm not sure that, on that large a scale, Metro is all that workable. I think there will need to be some alternative to the roads. Light rail, monorail, I'm open to suggestions. I think the economics of the situation are going to change to the point that a train sailing by the roads will be faster, more efficient, and more desirable than will travelling even on the HOV or toll lanes.

I agree with Charles and Ginger insofar as infinite pavement isn't the answer. Some sort of mass transportation will prove beneficial and financially viable. I just disagree with them insofar as their assertion that widening I-10 is not part of the answer.

Posted by: R. Alex on December 2, 2002 4:15 PM


Well, you're probably asking for impossible economics so long as Houston has such low population density. Ask yourself, has any other city with Houston's population density been successful with rail transit? And why did Houston terminate streetcar service to begin with? Be open to the idea of rail, sure, but don't go with it simply because it sounds plausible.

In the long term density will likely increase and rail will become viable. For now, it seems to be a waste of money.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on December 2, 2002 6:41 PM

Alex, I'm old enough and a long-enough-time Houston resident to remember when three lanes each way was considered so much more than anyone could possibly need that it could never be filled, too. (Said in the early 80s, before the boom hit and the west side built up so much.)

I'm also enough of a student of Houston trivia to know that the Southwest Freeway was at 110% of capacity the day it was opened. I think the SW Freeway is a far more apt comparison than 59 North, because Houston has historically expanded to the west and not to the northeast. As you say, they're going to build out to Sealy anyway.

I'm not adamantly opposed to light rail on the grounds that something different might work. (It's more likely to work in dense and therefore pedestrian-friendly areas, e.g., the Museum District and downtown.) What won't work--and we know this from experience--is generic highway expansion. The traffic will expand to fill the lanes allotted, whether they're toll, HOV, or standard freeway. There is no long-term mobility improvement involved.

In fact, looking at another Houston freeway, I-45 (north or south), what you find is that perpetual freeway expansion creates problems of its own. I lived in Clear Lake in the early 90s and the highway expansion I fought through then is still going on a decade later. If I-10 works the same way, and given the magnitude of the project, I don't see how it can be otherwise, the mobility problems it causes will be as great as those it alleviates.

Continued unchecked freeway expansion is an effective subsidy for people who want to live on the fringes of the city. I understand the desire, but it's simply not reasonable of people to expect the taxpayers to subsidize it.

Posted by: Ginger on December 2, 2002 10:33 PM


I agree that simply paving alone isn't the answer. Hence my support for Light Rail and other projects. You can say it's a subsidy of those that choose to live outside the city and there's some truth to that, but it's also a subsidy for those that *don't* live out there but need to travel those roads. According to the figures on the report that Charles cites (and are against expansion) most of the people that use the freeway aren't commuters. Not sure I buy that, but they make up a sizeable portion like, well, me. I live by the Galleria but there are times I want to use the freeway. The idea that we simply choke it to death to get people to stop moving out there is wholly unattractive to me.

Eventually, common sense will dictate that you don't move so far out of town and expect a clean drive to town. People will not move to Sealy or Brookshire (I thinkt hat's the name of the town) to live here. They'll start packing Sugarland until US59S needs upgrading again.

So yeah, freeway construction is a neverending process. That's all part of being a growing city. With each widening, traffic congestion will be eased. There will still be jams and stops and waits, but they won't last from 4-8, but from 5-6. As time passes, it'll start lasting longer, but maybe by then we'll have another system in place. Expanding the Katy Freeway isn't the entire answer. It's definitely not the permanent answer. But it's more of an answer of punishing people for wanting a nice house in Houston's GMA.

I've no desire to live Katy and I think anyone that does is crazy. Nor do I want to commute from Clear Lake. I do want to be able to drive to either, though. In the long term, let's discuss light rail (and it is being discussed) or monorail. And when we have those in place, THEN we can stop building roads. (this is why I support rail, Owen, in the longer term if we want to keep growing we have to have the alternatives in place when we run out of roads to build, and I think our population will eventually become more dense as people reach the limits of how far outward they'll go).

I see it like having a computer. A never ending pit of expenses, but it's still worth it in the end. Kinda hard to keep going if you don't upgrade once and a while, even though in a few years you may have to upgrade all over again. But until there is an alternative readily available, the short-term answer seems clear.

Posted by: R. Alex on December 2, 2002 11:41 PM

But Alex, I think you're presuming that the options are "build more freeway" or "do nothing". There are a lot of things that can be done about freeway commutes, but most of them rely on individual responsibility: carpool/vanpool/slug riding, using mass transit, shifting the hours of travel, travelling surface streets, not living in Sealy or Brookshire, etc. (I commute on Memorial as an alternative to I-10 myself, so I'm not just blowing smoke here.)

The comparison to a computer upgrade is not apt in a key respect. When I upgrade my computer, it's down for a weekend or so. I know; we just put a new hard drive in my laptop. If I upgrade I-10 West, it'll be out of action or at severely reduced capactiy for years. Where do those commuters squeezed off freeways under construction go? What about the lost travel time, productivity, damage to cars, etc. associated with freeway construction? I remember seeing a study a few years ago--I'll have to google for it--that suggested that the losses to freeway construction are roughly equal to the gains of the improved freeway on some of those key measures. If that's true, there really is no point in upgrading the Katy.

Who I think is ultimately being subsidized by the untrammelled growth of freeways, by the way, is not so much individual homeowners, but the developers of far-suburban subdivisions. The sense of short-commute entitlement that some suburban homeowners, such as that some of my Katy-dwelling cow orkers have, is annoying, but they are not individually the problem, save to the extent that they honestly believe the billboard claim that it's a 20-minute drive from Katy to downtown at any time other than 2 AM.

But developers will continue to build outlying suburbs until they become convinced it's unprofitable to do so. One of the things that makes people willing to buy in the suburbs is the idea that road expansion will reduce their commute in the end. It's not true; travelling during rush hour in Houston will always be difficult.

I don't see why we should spend years and years and years tying up traffic worse than it is now--the I-45 conundrum--and a lot of money subsidizing the fantasy that you can get quickly from Katy (or Clear Lake, or the Woodlands) to downtown. Especially if the disruption of the construction causes hassles that are equal to (or nearly so) the prospective mobility improvements.

Posted by: Ginger on December 3, 2002 10:00 AM

This is totally unrelated to the fine discussion going on, but doesn't this strike anyone as just a teensy bit dangerous?

Posted by: kevin on December 3, 2002 12:05 PM