Forget what Mom said about refusing rides from strangers. With gas prices skyrocketing, hopping into a random car might be one of your cheaper and greener commuting options. It’s how thousands of people in cities like Washington, DC; Berkeley, California; and Houston, Texas, get to and from work every day. Drivers pull up to a pickup point, and ride-seekers hop in the first car heading near their destination. The system, called “slugging” in DC (after the name bus drivers give passengers who use fake, or slug, coins to steal rides), started in the ’70s when the government introduced high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. Drivers cruise the fast lane, “slugs” get a free ride and everyone spends less time in traffic.

There are unspoken rules, of course— slugs may not initiate conversation, or ask for a radio station change or temperature adjustment. Drivers can’t ask for money, and a gentleman slug never leaves a lady alone in the pickup line.

Eco as it seems, slugging has drawn some controversy. Naysayers complain that on the emissions scale, ridesharing isn’t as green as taking public transit, and slugging may put bus and train passengers back on the road. Among slugs, hybrids have a bad rep because many are exempt from HOV lane regulations.

Despite the debate, slugging is an important step away from the American auto dream—every driver cruising alone in a huge, impregnable car—toward greener driving based on sharing. “It used to be just about saving money and time,” says slug Lynne McCune. “But now more and more people are looking at it environmentally. I feel like I’m doing my part.”

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008