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). :)

 

 

 

 


GASARCH

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?

George Jemmott

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.

YX

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.

Kathleen Lisson

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.'
Kathleen

George Jemmott

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.

Ben D

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

Enter your name...

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.

Jen (booizzy.com)

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.

Mike B

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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caleb b.

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.

caleb b.

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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Brian

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.

George Jemmott

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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Clancy

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.

Tree Frog

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

James

A poor one. Been there, done that.

Denise

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

Mike

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.

ben

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.

Jessica

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.

Bil C

Long Time Passing?

David

A few years ago I saw that someone had written a horror novel with this delightful premise:

Remember the twin golden rules of hitchhiking?
# 1: Don't go hitchhiking, because the driver who picks you up could be certifiably crazy.
# 2: Don't pick up hitchhikers, because the traveler you pick up could be raving nutcase.
So what if, on some dark, isolated road, Crazy #1 offered a ride to Nutcase #2?

The book is called "Serial" and is available as a free Kindle ebook through Amazon.

George Jemmott

As an avid hitchhiker myself (and, @Tree Frog, a former college student who enjoys eating out of dumpsters), and a member of several hitchhiking communities, online and in person, I've included links to some resources for you to immerse yourself in the digital hitchhiking world. They're down below a few paragraphs. But first I'll respond to your questions and comments.

Among people I've met who are interested in hitchhiking, but hesitant to try it, the number one reason is fear. I can't count the number of times I've heard, "Isn't that dangerous?" or "You really shouldn't be doing that - it's way too dangerous." How and why did all this fear appear? Beats me.

You suggest that "•Changes in law that prohibited hitchhikers from many roads, especially highways."

This reminds me of something I've heard from most seasoned hitchhikers in the US - stay off the freeways. While it's still legal to hitch from the onramps of most freeways (except in certain states, more details here http://guides.digihitch.com/laws), smaller highways will likely get you where you're going *faster* and likely be more pleasant, too, with slower-moving traffic, shorter distances to walk to get to a good hitching spot, and, dare I say with little hard evidence, friendlier drivers more likely to give you a ride. The best hard evidence I can provide is that the winners of hitchhiking races (yes, races! More info below) stick to 2-lane highways.

And you mention Half Moon Bay. It's anecdotal evidence, at best, but there aren't any freeways that run through Half Moon Bay - just some two-lane highways, right? Maybe you haven't seen many hitchhikers because you stick mostly to Interstates?

"•Changes in transportation: has it become easier/cheaper/more appealing to travel via mass transit and/or own a car?" Or ride a bicycle. Especially during summer months, there are hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of cross-country cyclists. Did that happen 50 years ago? But yes, I think "getting around" has gotten easier. Anyway, this would be a perfect question to ask folks on hitchhiking forums; some of them have been hitching since the 60s and have now found the internet. Which brings me to my next point...

"•The proliferation of ride-sharing, especially in the age of Craigslist..."

While Craigslist ridesharing is *sort of* like digital hitchhiking (You can post an "I need a ride" and see if anyone answers, or look for people offering rides... you don't even have to wait by the side of the road!), by far the largest online community of North American hitchhikers is:
www.digihitch.com

A few past gatherings of North American hitchhikers have been (sort of) on that page: http://gathering.digihitch.com/

Europeans gather all over the net, and all over Europe, with many national and regional groups (I hear about groups meeting up in Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and others) but a recent, vibrant, pan-European gathering-oriented group has sprung up here:
http://hitchgathering.org/
They met in 2008 in Paris, France, 2009 in Odessa Ukraine, and 2010 in Sines Portugal. It was just decided that in 2011 they will meet near the Black Sea in Bulgaria. Attendance has been on the order of 100 people, with large growth expected this year.

That particular group is currently helping foster a North American hitchgathering, offering web space at http://na.hitchgathering.org , a platform to use, and technical support. The 2010 North American Hitchgathering was small, but really fun, in and around Boulder, CO. We just decided that 2011's will be held on July 15-17 and will be figuring out a location sometime soon.

Much of the organization for these hitchhiking gatherings is done using publicly editable documents on "hitchwiki," which is built on the same mediawiki software that runs wikipedia (such as this organization page for the 2010 European gathering: http://hitchwiki.org/en/6810, or this page for the 2011 North American gathering: http://hitchwiki.org/en/Hitchgathering/North-America)

Hitchhiking races and gatherings happen frequently (I notice at least one a month around Europe, a few a year here in the US, fewer since the founder/creator of digihitch passed away). I see notes about them in other international communities, like CouchSurfing.com . The "hitchhikers" group on CouchSurfing, for example, (http://www.couchsurfing.org/group.html?gid=12) has about 10,000 members and provides lots of annoucements of hitchhiking events around Europe and North America. As with most online groups, I see *many* posts, perhaps the majority, are by a few individuals (if you look back through posts, you may notice someone named Anick-Marie Bouchard is prolific, organized, and helpful on the CouchSurfing hitchhikers group).

Feel free to contact me for more info, or join any of the communities I've linked above.

~George Jemmott
gjemmott at gmail

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John B

I looked in IMDB and there are several movies and TV movies with Hitchhiker in the name--all of which result in someone getting killed or worse.

This famous 1974 movie coincided with the decline of hitchhiking:

The Hitchhiker (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Edwin Neal) aka "Hitchhiker"

That didn't help any.......