When Tolling Leads To Slugging

A week after Thanksgiving, Virginia’s Department of Transportation launched the boldest experiment in road tolling yet in the United States. Tolls on Interstate 66 were allowed to increase as high as $40 for use of the highway’s express lanes by single-occupancy vehicles. The reaction was about what you’d expect when any good increases from free to $40; commuters and politicians alike labeled the increase “outrageous.”

Let’s stipulate up front that this was very much above the estimate of $6-7 tolls given by DOT officials (although these were always presented as average figures); and officials should have been more proactive about possible alternatives. Congestion pricing is thoroughly unpopular until it is implemented and the benefits are tangible.

One critique is that the Virginia toll increases have happened without improvements to mass transit. This is true, although the highway is not far from an existing Metro line. It’s also true that the cities which have implemented congestion charging are on the aggregate denser than the Beltway suburbs. Even in such environments, though, organic solutions quickly develop.

Enter “slugging,” a “show-up-and-go” carpooling arrangement that has long been popular in the DC metro area and San Francisco’s eastern suburbs. Rather than driving all the way to their destination, commuters park at outlying parking lots, and find drivers who are driving towards their destination. Drivers benefit from free or reduced charges for using their car to transport multiple passengers. In response to the abrupt toll hikes, slugging options quickly materialized, facilitated by social media.

This is just in the context of individual vehicles. If it were easier to start a private bus service, entrepreneurs would likely jump at the chance to run commuter bus service from these staging points.

Ideally, upzoning would come before road pricing, but in the interim, people just need to have options, and more often than not those options will develop on their own.

Ethan Finlan
Ethan Finlan is a writer and sketch comedian based in the Boston area.