Welcome to Crystal City, Amazon workers! Soon you will be confused by all of the manifold, wonderful ways to navigate Northern Virginia’s aging transportation infrastructure, affordable housing shortage, and endless sprawl; soon, you will join us in the delightful, endless knots of crushing traffic. But I am here to help: if the locals ride their horn behind you on the road, it’s nothing serious; it’s just that we’re all tired of sitting in traffic, of the construction that never alleviates congestion, and the fact that we can’t afford to live where we work, something your presence will massively exacerbate.
But look: welcome.
Let me help you orient yourself. Until December, I lived in Stafford County, just north of Fredericksburg, and soon you will too. This once-sleepy pastoral college town–more than 50 miles outside of DC–has become the District’s southernmost suburbs, and since 1980, the population of Stafford county has almost quadrupled. Developments along the 95 corridor keep going up because the price of living closer to DC keeps going up; as long as there are people who want new, large houses with yards and good schools, the District’s orbit will only keep expanding. And though Stafford is already the 20th richest county in the country, those 2017 numbers will no doubt rise with your arrival, along with housing prices and shortages.
But how, you are asking, am I going to get to my job in Crystal City?
Well! There are so many options. If you’re driving, be prepared to wait in traffic (and wait and wait and wait). The 95 corridor is the worst in the country according to a “cloud-based” traffic analytic service; I confess that I’ve lived and driven in Southern California–so I wonder about the accuracy of that statement–but who am I to argue with the cloud? The cloud knows all; the cloud will save us; put it on the cloud! Let me again take this opportunity to thank you for coming to this community; without cloud-based services such as provided by Amazon, how would we ever know how bad the traffic is?
But I’m getting side-tracked; in traffic, your mind wanders. One option is to pay to drive in the parallel EZ-Pass lanes: after you get an EZ-Pass box in your car (available either by mail or at most 7-11 or Giant locations), it can cost about $30 one-way to drive in the EZ-Pass lane, which is a deal compared to the $1000 fine you’ll pay if you don’t have an EZ-Pass box and get caught. But that’s an option, too; you can choose!
Another option is to avoid the cost by having three people in your car, having an EZ-Pass “Flex” box in your car, and setting it to “Car Pool,” then the trip is free. But what if there are only two of you? What if just one person could make the difference between free and $1000 fine?
Well! The solution is called “slugging.” Lining the 95 corridor are “slug lots,” maintained by VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) where commuters park their cars, and then wait in an orderly line for drivers that would like one or two extra passengers to take into DC. There are helpful signs indicating destinations–typically central locations with metro access–and then, at the end of the day, these same people wait at designated pick-up points corresponding to the lots where they left their cars.
A web-site devoted to the practice calls it “the most efficient, cost-effective form of commuting in the nation.” But despite the language, take a look at those antiquated graphics: you are NOT reading copy for a Silicon Valley startup. It is true that some people do seem to have hacked the system: A friend’s father in Northern Virginia works for the government, on the edge of retirement, and he has never driven to work a day in his life. But I have dreadful news for you: though Uber is reportedly working on an app, this ride-sharing is not (yet!) being monetized.
(Maybe you can help, Amazon? This thing, where it’s just people riding with other people, it’s so embarrassingly pre-Amazon HQ2).
From what I can tell, the practice was a spontaneous response to the problem of government regulations. I know those words don’t mean much to you, but let me explain: regulation is when the government makes rules dictating how people and corporations can behave. (Not everyone just gets to ignore laws they don’t like!) In this case, to help with traffic congestion, the government decreed that special commuter lanes were to be reserved for cars with three or more people. It happened–as that helpful website explains–in response to the Arab oil embargo of the 1970’s, when “gas prices soared [and] the United States adopted a number of measures to curb gasoline consumption,” including the construction of high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for vehicles with more than three occupants.” Strangely, it worked: these lanes move swiftly compared to the “regular” lanes, since 18-wheelers aren’t allowed to drive in them and there are less cars, as well as few points of entries and exits.
And so it was that an incentive structure designed to produce a specific result did, in fact, produce the result it was designed to produce: people began slugging. What a depressing story. Governments solving a problem limiting freedom. Uggh! You must be asking: where are the innovators here? Who was the first? Who named them slugs–uggh, what a name!–and how on earth did it catch on without millions of dollars in branding consultancy?
In 2003, a BBC reporter reported that, as “the story goes,” the word came “from bus drivers who had to determine if there were genuine passengers at their stop or just people wanting a free lift in the same way that they look out for fake coins–or “slugs”–being thrown into the fare-collection box.” But where she got this story is as unclear as the citations page for slug-lines.com; how exactly the masses of DC Metro commuters organized themselves in this way–when it became known as slugging and how it achieved official recognition–are questions without obvious answers.
What is obvious is the practice: get in line. if you want to raise a car’s occupancy from one or two to three, you just get in line. If you need more passengers, you get in line.
It took a week of two hours in traffic before I could convince my husband that a stranger in our car was worth it. Like many who have never heard of slugging nor had to make their way into DC from the extended NoVa suburbs, my husband was leery of letting strangers ride with us, especially if they engaged him in small talk. “Don’t worry,” I reassured him, “there is an etiquette to this.” And so we began: we pulled up to the sign for our commuter drop-off and signaled for one; one human body got in, said thanks, and then said not a single word more for the entire ride.
After a few months, we had the routine down: we know the best lots, the best routes, the best times. We were not the only ones; the slug lots are full, and we’d pass car after car with three or four silent passengers riding into DC. They put their headphones on and watch their phones or work or read or listen to music. I’m jealous of the ones who can fall dead asleep, snoring next to me or behind me. My husband and I would try to take the time together to chat, in the extra couple of hours together we didn’t have before. But it’s weird with strangers in the car; we mostly stick with small talk. He kept reminding me that is is only temporary, that I’ll get used to it. But I don’t mind the strangers; I mind that we have to drive at all.
I wish we could ride trains. The VRE commuter train would get us from Stafford county into DC, running parallel to the 95 with stops at commuter lots on the way to Union Station. Before I got my job in DC, my husband took the VRE, and it was convenient for him–he could walk to work from Union Station–and relatively inexpensive. But added to the expense of two VRE passes was the prospect of heat delays when the Northern Virginia summer warps the tracks or the few inches of snow that it takes to stop the train, not to mention broken engines, trees across the tracks, switch issues, and any other number of problems.
The same sort of thing bedevils the Metro trains. When I first visited DC in the late 1990s, I marveled at the Metro that took me from the airport into the Capital district, and then back out to Fairfax; it had carpets, and cushions on the seats, and it was filled with serious-looking people in suits and military uniforms. Today, the DC metro is a poster-child for aging infrastructure and lack of investment, as likely to catch on fire as show up on time. But according to this exhaustive deep-dive into the problems with the DC Metro, the challenge of a transportation system split between two states, the district, and the Federal government is that one claims ultimate responsibility. DC is not a state, so they pay Federal taxes, but have no representation in congress (and the official licence plates actually says NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION). But, perhaps more to the point, people who work in DC don’t tend to live in DC; they tend to drive in from Virginia and Maryland.
(Meanwhile, Metro ridership is down, exacerbated by a massive shutdown for maintenance this past summer; fewer passengers means less money, which means less support, which means it will keep falling apart, discouraging more people from using it.)
Growing up in Montreal, I got everywhere by bus and metro: the mall, swim team practice, school, home, the movies, hockey games, baseball games, the bar, everywhere. But more than Montreal’s superior system, I had the luxury of time: I spent endless hours on metros and buses and trains, waiting to get from one place to another, enjoying the quiet time, listening to my walkman.
Now, time is money (convertible into housing). Time could be spent: spent with my kids, spent writing, spent reading, making dinner, spent on anything but sitting in traffic, on a stalled train, in a metro station.
I don’t think I could be a slug. But maybe you can! Waiting, hoping for someone to pick you up; some days you’ll wait a long time. If there isn’t anyone at the slug lot, I’m still going to make it to work. But if no one picks you up at the slug lot, you’re not going anywhere.
In December, we moved to McLean, on the Silver Line, signing an 18-month lease just before the Amazon announcement. I’m looking forward to feeling less rushed, to not sitting in the car for four hours every day. I’m wary of relying on the Metro, but maybe sitting and listening to books on tape–as well as walking to and from the metro–will help my mental health.
Slugging was an option where there were no good options. But did it remove the impetus to improve public transit? I wonder. The commuter lots are publicly supported, with official Virginia Department of Transportation signage, on and off highways. Parking lots are cheaper than a transit system, and the EZ-Pass lanes are controlled by a private company (with the state getting a cut).
What will you, oh Future Amazon H2 employee, do to our commute? To our ability to pay rent or own a home one day? The infrastructure is stretched far past its limit, but I doubt Amazon will re-invest in infrastructure for everyone; I suspect we’ll see more privatized disruption. We’ll start seeing Amazon buses in the EZ-Pass lane, or they’ll buy up affordable housing and turn it into Amazon dorms. I worry about the already-squeezed working class, here, about who will be able to afford to be a part of government; I worry about the lives stretched along endless lines and slowdowns. I worry, but I don’t wonder what will happen. It already has, after all. Why else did you come here?