Snug as a Slug

August 30, 2013

Almost nothing is more low-tech than the D.C. institution of slug lines. Riders gather at a predetermined spot. Drivers looking to qualify for an HOV lane pull up, say how many passengers can climb in and then speed off. This “casual carpooling” system has worked since the 1970s, way before there was an app for anything.

So the slugs who queued up near Metro Center on Monday night were a bit dubious when two people in matching T-shirts arrived to pitch Alternabus, a new service that hooks up drivers and passengers online. “I don’t want to have to pull out my phone when I can just come here,” one slug told Alternabus’ Amanda Barrett, who responded with this comeback: “You won’t have to stand outside in the rain anymore.” A guy in line then explained that he likes the rain because it discourages “fair-weather slugs,” a term he seems to reserve for the worst kind of human being.

But Alternabus looks as if it could appeal to those fair-weather slugs and anyone else who wants a little more control over their schedule. Founder Dan Abrams realized that although ride-sharing is on the rise in D.C., it’s not all that easy to use for a daily commute. Sidecar and Lyft mostly operate like cabs and aren’t much cheaper. There are also options for people interested in partnering for a one-time longer haul — like to New York for the weekend. If you’re on a budget and looking for rides on a regular basis, however, you’re pretty much sunk.

With Alternabus, drivers plug in their routes and set a price per seat. It can be free, or whatever the drivers want to charge. The site suggests an amount of just a few bucks because “the goal is to be on par with public transportation for the same trip,” Abrams says.

Abrams figured that slugs are already familiar with ride-sharing, so they’d be the easiest group to get on board. But the Monday lineup had concerns right off the bat.

“What’s not appealing is to be on someone else’s clock,” said Jackie Hall, 49, who commutes to King George County by way of a lot in Stafford, Va. A driver who gets held up at work and can’t leave at the designated time could complicate her whole evening. “In the meantime, I could be in the slug line and gone,” she added.

Others pointed out that they could be in carpools if they wanted, but that they prefer the flexibility of a slug line. That’s when Barrett offered another benefit of Alternabus — you sign up for each ride individually, so you could regularly use one driver in the morning, another in the evening and a third on nights when you stay late.

That’s, of course, working off the theory that there are tons of drivers signed up for Alternabus. It’s just a month old, so there aren’t yet.

If and when a real network is in place, some slugs said they’d be open to giving Alternabus a shot. Their current situation isn’t perfect — after 6 p.m., for instance, the supply of drivers dries up. (HOV restrictions are lifted, so there’s no incentive to pick up passengers.) Maybe a little cash could change that.

But the beauty of the slug lines is that they don’t change.

Commuter Options

Alternabus needs to locate people without access to slug lines and convince them that hopping into cars with strangers isn’t sketchy. Technology may help: Messages and payments are handled through the Alternabus site (which takes a 12 percent cut). And competition could be good for the site. As of Wednesday, RidePost.com is offering a similar commuter option. The startup team, which had been targeting long-haul trips and events, recognized the need when it moved from North Carolina to D.C. this year.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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