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Life in the fast lane: In the D.C. area, carpooling ‘slugs’ ride fast and free

HOV-3 lanes allow cars with at least 3 people a fast route to the city.
HOV-3 lanes allow cars with at least three people a fast route to the city.

It’s a Wednesday morning like any other, and Vicky Manalansan is speeding down the freeway toward Washington, D.C., in her silver minivan. Riding in her backseat are two complete strangers she picked up at a suburban commuter lot.

Smartphone-wielding techsters in San Francisco might call this “ridesharing,” but in the D.C. area, where carpooling has been an accepted way of life for decades, they call it “slugging.” Each day, an estimated 10,000 commuters in northern Virginia hitch rides this way. Passengers get a free ride; drivers get a free pass to use the special “HOV-3” routes, open only to cars holding three passengers or more.

“With the price of gas, and this traffic here,” Manalansan says, gesturing to the jammed lanes of 395, “it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” During the almost two decades she’s been doing this, she says, slugging has reduced her commuting time by more than half.

vintage-carpool
Lee Morehouse / Dr. Suess

Carpooling is nothing new. In the United States, it began during World War II as a money- and resource-saving device. Likewise, sharing cars with strangers predates all those ridesharing apps by decades. Northern Virginia’s dedicated HOV-3 lanes along 395 were constructed in 1969, and commuters have picked up strangers ever since.

Slugs were so named by bus drivers trying to distinguish between carpoolers and people standing in line for the bus, much as they once kept a vigilant eye out for fake bus tokens -- known as "slugs." There are also slugging systems in San Francisco, Houston, and Pittsburgh. And, internationally, Jakarta has HOV-3 lanes to help with its intense traffic, though that system is not without flaws.

But slugging was born in the nation’s capital, and it continues to thrive here. The D.C. area has the second-busiest traffic during rush hour in North America, according to a November 2010 report by NAVTEQ. To avoid the congestion, approximately 13 percent of D.C.-area commuters carpool in some fashion. The number is even higher -- 18 percent -- in Virginia’s Fairfax County, where slugging began.

Read more: Cities

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Got food scraps? Hail a ‘Compost Cab’

Washington, D.C.'s trash is Jeremy Brosowsky's treasure.

Jeremy Brosowsky was in a Milwaukee greenhouse in March 2010 when he had an epiphany: “What if we could take our garbage and grow food in it?”

Brosowsky, 38, was in Wisconsin to learn about urban agriculture at Growing Power, the pioneering urban farm of McArthur Genius fellow Will Allen. At the time, Jeremy was thinking about starting a rooftop agriculture business, but he was intrigued by Allen’s emphasis on the importance -- and elusiveness -- of fertile soil.

“If you don’t dramatically improve the soil, you cannot grow food in cities,” Brosowsky says.

His solution? Compost Cab, a Washington, D.C.-based service that picks up urban food waste and delivers it to local farms for composting. From group houses to government offices to high-end restaurants, all are welcome to give up their brown gold.

Read more: Food