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

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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. caleb b. says:

    In college 03-07, I never had a car. I live 3-4 hours from home but always got a ride via facebook. I would just send a message to everyone whose profile said that they were from my home town. Out of the 114 people I messaged, I got about 65 rejections and 1 acceptance.

    Because I used to need a ride a lot, I had a higher propensity to give people rides. BUT not HHers. I would only give a ride to someone who was not soliciting one. I figured I was getting only people that had broken down and no bums.

    However, one day I picked up a bum who didn’t look like one. He immediately asked for some crack. I said i didn’t have any so he asked if i had some speed. I dropped him off where he wanted to go, but that was the last stranger i gave a ride to. ALSO, when I got married, my wife forbade me from every giving a stranger a ride again. I prefer the utility of a happy marriage over increasing the utility of a walking bum.

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  2. Brian says:

    I think it probably is more dangerous now because very few people pick up hitchers. That means that the person picking up a hitcher is much more likely to have bad intentions. Likewise on the other end. If it were normal it would be safe.

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    • George Jemmott says:

      EXACTLY, Brian! I heard this first a few years ago, and have found it to be very true, to the extent to which I can tell. I would *love* to see some data on this.

      Note that another way to say this might be, “Because the practices of hitchhiking and picking up hitchhikers have been marginalized, it tends to be more marginalized people that hitchhike and pick up hitchhikers. ‘Normal’ people wouldn’t want to do something that is commonly believed to be a ‘bad idea’!”

      I guess that’s one reasons my drivers in the US tend to be more colorful individuals than my drivers in Europe, which I really enjoy sometimes… and other times wish that every ride could be that rare soccer mom or vacationing family.

      When I first heard this idea, by the way, it regarded the inverse situation; specifically, “hitchhiking is so safe in South America because it is common. Regular people hitchhike and regular people give hitchhikers rides.”

      @Clancy seems to agree with us, too :)

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  3. Clancy says:

    I think it’s a matter of equilibrium. If lots of people hitchhike, and lots of people pick up hitchhikers, then you can assume that the hitchhiker or the person picking you up is a normal, stable individual. But if hitchhiking ceases to be something “normal, stable” people do, the chance that a hitchhiker is a creeper goes up (or at least the perception does). Then picking up hitchhikers becomes something “normal” people don’t do, so if you’re a hitchhiker you worry more about being picked up by creepers (unless you happen to be a creeper yourself). After a few of these cycles, nobody but creepers and really desperate people are hitchhiking.
    All it took was a few stories about creepers and a little time to move to the current equilibrium.

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  4. Tree Frog says:

    What the hell kind of college student is likely to eat out of dumpsters?

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  5. Denise says:

    Am basking in the glow of my first ever Freakonomics swag win – delighted to have been the fastest finger! Thanks guys!

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  6. Mike says:

    I live in Calgary. I frequently see hitchhikers with snowboards along the TransCanada trying to get to and from Banff (about an hour away). I also see hitchhikers where the highway passes through the Indian reserves.

    Other than those two specific circumstances, I agree, its been years.

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  7. ben says:

    hitching still active in Colorado for people who live on one side of a mt and work on another…have given rides to several on the alma to breckenridge route 9. did a lot of hitching myself in LA from hollywood to westwood in grd school; even from pasadena to long beach a few times. lots of fun.

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  8. Jessica says:

    I’ve hitchhiked (Thailand, Turkey, Italy, France, Morocco) and picked up hitchhikers. Both have been good experiences.

    The funny thing about hitching is that until you do it, you don’t think anyone will pick up hitchhikers. It’s definitely harder in the US, from casual observation and talking with the folks I’ve picked up.

    It’s much more common outside the US where fewer people own cars and they don’t treat people without personal transportation (or who, philosophically, choose HH) as degenerates.

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