The Answer to Yesterday’s Freakonomics Contest: Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone?

Photo: iStockphoto

The contest question was pretty simple:

I was in California the other day and saw someone doing something that I haven’t seen done in a good while. I used to do it myself quite a bit, when I was in college, largely out of necessity. What was it?

The answer I was looking for was … hitchhiking. The post went up yesterday at 11 a.m.; as I write this, there are about 190 replies. The first correct guess came in at 11:09, comment No. 4, from Denise. So to Denise goes her choice of swag. Congrats!

I spent my undergrad years at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. It is pretty far from everything. Because I had no car and no money, I did a lot of hitchhiking: from Boone “down the mountain” to Winston-Salem or Charlotte; down to Atlanta and back a few times; and all the way from N.C. to my home state of New York a few times. The best ride I ever caught: from Syracuse, N.Y. to North Carolina. I was at a Rolling Stones concert at the Carrier Dome and had no idea how I’d get back to N.C. for the college term. So I wrote on the back of my jacket that I needed a ride. During the last encore, some guy tapped me on the shoulder, said he was heading straight down I-81 through the Carolinas, and I was welcome to join him.

But most of the rides were much shorter, much less fun, and occasionally harrowing. I can’t say I enjoyed hitching much at all, but it got me where I needed to go. I actually started hitching as a kid in upstate New York, when I was about 13. I had a before-school job stocking shelves at the tiny market in town, 1.6 miles away, and I’d stand out in the dark with my backpack thumbing rides on a road where a car came about every 5 minutes. My hit rate there must have been 75 percent.

All these memories came flooding back the other day when I saw a couple of scruffy teenagers thumbing in Half Moon Bay, Calif. I couldn’t remember the last time I even saw a hitchhiker. Made me wonder: where did they all go? I have no evidence or data on the decline of hitchhiking, but its virtual disappearance seems clear from observation; please correct me if you disagree.

A 2001 paper called “The Neglected Art of Hitch-hiking: Risk, Trust, and Sustainability” argues that, in Europe at least, the decline began in the mid-1970’s, and the practice was killed off entirely by a few high-profile crimes committed against hitchhikers, and that “hitch-hiking is now seen by many people as risky and dangerous for both parties – too risky, in fact, to undertake.”

That certainly seems sensible, although I have a sneaking suspicion that, as with many adverse events, hitchhiking was probably considerably less dangerous than the headlines would indicate. I once wrote about “the cost of fearing strangers,” which walked through the numbers concerning murders, kidnappings, and the like. Just today, the Wall Street Journal published an article about how few child kidnappings are in fact the result of a stranger taking a child:

The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services said Wednesday that 20,309 children were reported missing statewide last year. Just one of them was confirmed to have been abducted by a stranger, the agency reported. The vast majority of the missing children—almost 94% of last year’s total—were runaways. Most of them were teenagers. … A spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children said a 2002 Department of Justice study, the most recent national numbers available, showed that of approximately 797,500 children reported missing over the course of a year, 115 were kidnapped by strangers.

But it’s hard for me to believe that fear and fear itself has killed off hitchhiking. What other factors might have helped? If I had to guess, I’d say:

  • Changes in law that prohibited hitchhikers from many roads, especially highways
  • Changes in transportation: has it become easier/cheaper/more appealing to travel via mass transit and/or own a car?
  • The proliferation of ride-sharing, especially in the age of Craigslist, where you can check out a potential ride to make sure he’s not a creep. (I was in Seattle recently and was told about a new ride-sharing phone app; my first thought was that it’ll only take one creep to ruin its reputation. Here’s one story about it.)
  • People have lots more stuff to do where they are, and don’t need to get around as much.

Still, it doesn’t seem sensible that demand for rides has declined so much that something as primordial as thumbing a ride would nearly disappear. It’s a pretty simple matching problem: there are probably lots of good rides and lots of good riders out there, but what’s the best way for them to hook up? Maybe this is a job for market-design guru Al Roth. If he can match medical residents with hospitals and organ donors with recipients, surely he could find a way to match drivers and riders.

As much fun as it has been to think about hitchhiking, it was even more fun to look through your many answers to the question I posed. It’s amazing how many things we used to do on a regular basis have nearly disappeared from modern life. Among your more enlightening/amusing answers:

Use a phone booth; use a phone book; place a collect call; type on a typewriter; dry laundry on a clothesline; roller-blading; unicycling; use a handle to roll down a car window; use a card catalog; use a floppy disk.

And then there were the set of answers of things that I no longer do but current college students likely do:

Eat ramen noodles; steal toilet paper; sell blood or plasma; eat out of a Dumpster; buy food with loose change.

And then there’s a reader named Bruce, who proves once and for all that Freakonomics readers are blessedly unbound by the typical societal norms:

Masturbating (those Californians have no shame). :)





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  1. GASARCH says:

    One ofther factor: people carry alot more STUFF nowadays. So Hitchiking doesn’t work as well.
    People can’t be without their laptops, cell phones. If things get miniatrized more
    (e.g., kindle) might hitchiking come back?

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    • George Jemmott says:

      Indeed. One friend who hitchhikes for months at a time carries a Linux-based smart-phone (Nokia N900, similar to an Android, but more hackable). It acts as a computer, phone, camera, GPS, etc.
      When I hitchhike, I don’t take wall-plugs for my devices, just cigarette-lighter “travel” adapters; I’ve never had a driver mind me plugging in a phone or GPS.

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  2. YX says:

    Bill James talked about how stop hitchhikers does not reduce violent crime, but just redirect them to other situations in one of his essays.

    The basic point is, if one person hitchhike now, it’s pretty much a death wish. But if everyone start hitchhike like before, it will be just as safe as any other activities.

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  3. Kathleen Lisson says:

    I’m not sure if it is correctly called hitchhiking, but I have seen a practice in downtown DC where businesspeople will wait at a corner and get picked up by a stranger in a car for an impromptu ‘carpool’ out of the district.
    Wikipedia calls the practice ‘slugging.’

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    • George Jemmott says:

      The same thing happens in the Bay area, from East Bay in to San Francisco. They call it “Casual Carpool.” One benefit for the drivers is that, at least across the Bay Bridge to and from Oakland, the fare is reduced for “carpools.” I was disappointed, though, that they put up a sign with hours for when to stop – in the East Bay in the mornings, between 7 and 9am, and in San Francisco between 4 and 6pm, or something like that.

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    • Ted says:

      Apparently its a very popular way to use the HOV lanes on the Virginia side of the city. There’s even a whole website dedicated to it:

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  4. Ben D says:

    I think it’s clearly the 2nd bullet. Everybody who wants to go anywhere has at least one car, maybe two.

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  5. Enter your name... says:

    There was a paper written by Kenneth E Dallmeyer from Center for Urban Transportation Studies, University of Colorado, called “Hitchhiking : a viable addition to a multi-modal transportation system?” in the 1970s. I’d provide a link, but it seems that it only exists in micro-fiche.

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  6. Jen ( says:

    There are places where hitch hiking is still practiced. I visited a friend in Zambia a few years ago, and she alerted me that we would be hitching quite a bit. At first, I considered renting a car, but eventually I gave in. Those were actually some of our best rides. Much better than the rides we paid for on death trap buses.

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  7. Mike B says:

    I have come across African American communities in certain large cities that have informal ride sharing systems. The desire for a ride is indicated by a series of covert hand positions that resemble hailing a cab, but are different enough so that cabs know not to stop. I guess the idea is that if you already live in a high crime area and represent the sort of demographic that keeps the wider public from hitchhiking then there is little left to lose.

    Re why people don’t do it as much I simply think that the availability of vehicles has risen and the cost has gone way down. Inflation adjusted gas prices are still low by historical standards and highly reliable used vehicles are cheap and plentiful. Even if every person lacks a vehicle they will almost surely have access to a friend of relative who does have one and can provide a ride. Meanwhile those who completely lack access to transportation can simply perform most of their tasks online.

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  8. caleb b. says:

    Here’s my guess: HH has declined because the success rate of getting a ride this way is so low that it isn’t worth trying. The riders are still out there, but since they know that no one will pick them up, they don’t bother to try.

    Slight Alternative explanation. Clean, non-druggie homeless people are the only ones that HH anymore. When the quality of HH declined, so did the acceptance rate. Thus the downward spiral.

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