The Culture of Carpooling With Strangers

Photograph by N. Beckerman

In case it wasn’t enough of a departure from the typical New York commute that cars heading over bridges into Manhattan during the next few days must carry at least three riders, Mayor Bloomberg suggested on Wednesday that drivers pick up strangers by the bridges and bring them across the river. “You are their solution, and they are your solution as well,” he said at a press conference.

Crazy as it may sound to New Yorkers, giving rides to strangers is not only common in other cities, it has a whole self-regulating subculture. In Washington, D.C., the practice is known as “slugging.” Drivers pick up “slugs” so they can zip down carpool lanes on congested highways, while riders get, well, a free ride. There are unofficial pickup and drop-off points. When a driver says he’s going to the Pentagon, that means he will specifically head to the curb along Fern Street, not the North Parking Lot, explains the website And New Yorkers, take note of the first rule of slugging: There is to be no talking in the car unless the driver initiates the conversation. “Usually the only words exchanged are ‘Thank you’ as the driver drops off the slugs at the destination,” the site says.

The same goes in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the practice is called “casual carpool.” As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, rules have been negotiated among the carpooling community for years. These include the no-speaking-unless-spoken-to boundary and the caveat that “under no circumstances are you permitted to snore if you fall asleep,” the Chronicle reports.

New Yorkers will have to resolve one of the great moral quandaries of slugging: whether to split the bridge toll. After San Francisco established a $2.50 toll for the carpool lane in 2010, the Chronicle interviewed three dozen drivers and riders and found the carpools have three competing philosophies: “those who pay a share of the toll—usually $1—no matter what, those who pay only when asked and those who refuse to contribute.”

While these social mores have developed over years or decades in other cities, New Yorkers will have to negotiate their rules on the fly. As you debate sharing a ride with a stranger, consider this bit of slugging poetry:

For all of the new comers, we do
welcome you to ride with us,
For we’ve been at this for years
putting in a very mutual trust.

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