Calgary city planner suggests hitchhiking to ease traffic congestion

We all hate traffic, but if you are going to avoid it, do it the right way. Pick up a stranger.Every once in a while someone is caught driving in a high-occupancy vehicle lane with an inflatable doll sitting in the passenger seat, or executing some other tricky maneuver to avoid congested highways lanes without going through the effort of actually carpooling.

We all hate traffic, but if you are going to avoid it, do it the right way. Pick up a stranger.

The National Post reports that Calgary’s new city planner believes the answer to city gridlock is hitchhiking. Not “dusty jacket, stick-and-bindle” hitchhiking, but a system of semi-organized spontaneous carpools.

[ Related: Calgary's mayor to focus on transportation in 2013 ]

The habit is known as “slugging” and it is common in some U.S. cities, specifically Washington, D.C. Drivers pick up passengers going in the same direction and their filled cars afford them the right to commute in the faster carpool lane. Those passengers, meantime, get a free ride.

Win, win.

Rollin Stanley, Calgary’s city planner, told the Post:

It’s a perfect example of a grassroots solution. There’s not all this bureaucratic overhead trying to regulate it. It’s just people trying to solve a problem and solve it in a way that’s so efficient.

It is a better plan than building extra traffic lanes. A better plan than costly, complicated transit lines. Slugging is a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of idea that should play well with all sides of the transit argument.

If not for a couple of obvious and immediate concerns.

There's a reason why hitchhiking is no longer a common practice in Canada, and it is not because all the damn hippies grew up and got jobs.

There has been one too many movies made about hitchhiking axe murderers, one too many bedtime stories about the bad things that happen when you get into a car with a stranger.

For better or worse, we are a more cautious community than 30 years ago. More litigious, too, which raises the second obvious concern.

If city officials are out there promoting the practice of slugging, who is to blame when something goes wrong?

City transit systems hire only well-trained drivers. Passengers are monitored and inappropriate behaviour is punished. If the government has any hand in organizing a slugging system, suddenly there would be checks and balances to be met. Safety checks, registration forms. The whole system would collapse under the weight of the red tape.

David LeBlanc, a slugging expert who wrote an etiquette guide for slugs, told the Post that the only way the system works is with an absence of government oversight.

This is the same guy who suggests that "conversations of religion, politics, or sex" should not be held between slug and driver, so it's worth considering his opinion on the matter.

As for the threat of crime, that may be a bit overstated.

In 2011, Pacific Standard Magazine did an extensive feature on slugging in the District of Columbia -- the largest in North America.

[ More Brew: Search continues for missing Langdon Hall executive chef Jonathan Gushue ]

Of the significant points of note, the article mentions that there was not a single known incident of violence or crime in the first three decades. A local radio station later reported  that a former army sergeant was found guilty of striking a slugger who had threatened to report him for dangerous driving.

One incident in 30 years is a pretty reasonable record, comparable if not better to many Canadian public transit systems.

Perhaps slugging networks would work in Calgary or other Canadian cities suffering from traffic congestion. But they would have to be spearheaded by citizens, not just city planners.

Some start pulling up their bootstraps on this.