How the Internet Is Restoring the Market for Hitchhiking

(Photodisc)

In our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone,” we looked at how hitchhiking is essentially a market. Specifically, as Levitt puts it, it’s a “matching market” where supply (a person who’s willing to give a ride) matches up with demand (a person who needs a ride) in natural equilibrium. Over time, that equilibrium, as facilitated by people thumbing on the sides of roads, eventually vanished.

But the supply remained; actually it increased — as the average number of passengers in a car during the work commute went from 1.3 in 1977, to 1.1 today. (Click here for more data.) And as gas prices have steadily risen, and the economy flat-lined, the demand has seemingly come back. Enter the Internet as the new facilitator.

As many of you have pointed out in emails and comments, an entire online ecosystem of ride-sharing ventures has cropped up in the last few years. So here are the highlights:

First is Zimride, an online ride-sharing service that allows you to rent out space in your car. Pricing appears to depend on a few factors, like distance and expected time, but also on how deep the market is. After a quick perusal of the rides being offered on Zimride, the cheapest I saw was in Wisconsin: a $5 ride from Oshkosh to Cedarburg. The most expensive was $80 from San Francisco to Seattle. I did see a ride from Minneapolis to La Crosse posted for $0, but I’m assuming that’s a typo. Or maybe that person is just lonely.

According to an email we received from a Zimride PR person, since launching in 2007, the site has facilitated more than 26,000 carpools and created over $50 million in savings, mostly in gas, I assume.

Late last year, a company called Avego launched a smartphone app called go520, which matches drivers and riders in real time as they travel along Washington State’s often-congested SR 520 highway. To do away with price haggling, the app determines the cost of the ride for you. From a recent news story:

Would-be passengers using any phone that allows for text messaging request the ride they need. If there are any intersections in the routes between drivers and would-be riders, a connection is made and the driver is notified of the interested rider.

If both parties agree, Avego calculates how much the rider will be charged to compensate the driver, determines a convenient pick up location, and provides a PIN for verification. Both drivers and riders would be able to rate each other on a five star system.

The State of Washington likes the idea so much, it gives a $30 gas card for drivers who complete a certain amount of trips a month, and Avego credits for riders to use on other trips.

Of course, Craigslist, the ultimate online matching-market facilitator, has had a robust ride-sharing market in a number of cities for years.

Finally, a story of a very niche hitchhiking market comes from reader Chris Gorman, whose email is posted below, along with a cool kayaking video.

I love your show, it is great!

I just listened to your Hitchhiking show.

I wanted to point out something you may not know about. I am an avid whitewater kayaker.

When we kayak a river we have to start at one spot and end at another (bridging the distance in our kayaks). So after we finish kayaking, we need transportation from the bottom of the river to the top of the river where we leave our cars.

Most rivers are not paddled often so we call a friend and meet with two cars and set “shuttle” up ourselves without hitchhiking.

But on certain rivers, generally rivers that have high whitewater rafting traffic. There are enough people driving the route you need to go that you can successfully hitchhike safely.

Mainly only other kayaker/rafters will pick you up…there is an underlying trust amongst the group (I imagine because of the dangers of the sport bring people closer together)

When I go to the Ocoee or Nantahala river ( in the SouthEast US) to kayak, I almost always hitchhike the 5 miles from one end of the river to the other.

So hitch hiking is still alive in small groups.

Thought you might find this interesting, Also if you need any more information about my sport I am more than happy to fill you in, it is quite interesting. We regularly throw ourselves off of waterfalls for fun. (It is a lot more calculated than one would think, as we look at every rapid and figure where to go. A lot of the risk is minimized. But it still has risk. Here is a video I made (have rights to music and all) of one of the rivers I regularly hitchhike on.

Gravity – Chapter 3 – Tallulah River Gorge from AutoBoof Productions on Vimeo.

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  1. Meghan says:

    Snowboarders and skiers also hitchhike. In Colorado there is a spot called Loveland Pass, where people park at the top and ski down ending lower down on the same road. Cars driving up to the ski resorts pick them up and act as the lift to the top. http://www.coloradoskiauthority.com/backcountry/routes/loveland-pass/

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  2. James says:

    I don’t think these on-line ride sharing sites can really be called hitchhiking, which is pretty much by definition an ad-lib activity: you stand by the side of the road with your thumb out, and take whatever comes along. They’re more of an extension of the notes that used to be posted on college bulletin boards &c, and are really more of a market for services.

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    • David says:

      I completely agree. When you have an online website to facilitate rides, when people plan ahead of time, when people are exchanging money … this is not hitchhiking.

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    • Adriel says:

      Whatever it’s called, it’s saving gas and reducing congestion. One of the points made in the podcast was that spare capacity in all the empty seats in private cars is pretty ridiculous. Hitchhiking used to be one way this capacity was used. These days, using GPS enabled apps on your smartphone, micro-transactions as payment, and rating people on how crazy/normal they were lets people have a much better ride sharing experience. We’re just a few short years from this kind of software and support becoming a more wide-spread reality.

      Your GPS enabled smartphone becomes your thumb out on the side of the road.

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  3. kayakerlover says:

    Chris Gorman is so hott!!!

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  4. Daniel says:

    You should check out hitch-hiking along the long distance trails in the US. I did tons of hitch-hiking when I did the Appalachian Trail and I’m sure the same is true for hikers of the Continental Divide Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s sooo easy to get a ride at almost any road crossing near a city on the AT.

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    • James says:

      But how can you be hitchhiking and doing the AT at the same time? They would seem to be mutually exclusive.

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      • Ryan says:

        I have hiked the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail as well, and hitchhiking is very much alive in those backpacking circles. Hikers often need to get back into town in order to get supplies. Towns are often five, ten, twenty or more miles away from the trail, so walking on a road into town and then back to the trail is seen as a waste of time. We’d rather be hiking on trail, not road. Long distance backpackers hitchhike like this all the time.

        Then there’s the break from the trail… I got off the Pacific Crest Trail mid-summer to go to a music festival, so I hitchhiked all over California to get there and then back to the trail. Lots of adventures were had during the hitchhiking as well as the hiking.

        It’s pretty common for other hikers in big hiking areas like the White Mountains (NH) and Adirondacks (NY) to hitchhike as well, since you often only have one car and there are very few loop hikes out there. I can’t remember how many times I’ve hitchhiked during or after hiking trips. It’s always a nice way to remind yourself that people are nice enough to give a stinky hiker a ride.

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  5. Jason Shen says:

    It’s great to see Freakonomics cover ridesharing as I think it’s going to be come a major way that a lot of people get around. One of the things you didn’t really touch on is the power of technology to increase trust.

    It’s not just about matching supply and demand, but helping people feel comfortable with each other. With “thumb out” hitch hiking you have no idea who you are picking up (or who is driving you). But now with Facebook, you can really get a sense of who people are (and even if you have mutual friends with them) before you decide to ride together.

    By the way: I’m one of the guys behind Ridejoy, a social transportation site that helps match drivers and passengers all along the west coast: http://ridejoy.com

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  6. Ryan says:

    A similar concept to the sites for finding rides and rating other people is couchsurfing.org, which allows people to host sort-of strangers in their home. There are profiles, ratings, vouching systems, and hosts can set their own conditions. It doesn’t have the immediacy of sticking one’s thumb out, though I’ve met people (and gotten rooms myself) who have found a room after landing in a city, moving from a hotel or hostel into someone’s place during a trip.

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  7. Dedwarmo says:

    Another thing that affects hitchhiking is states that prohibit hitchhiking on certain “fully controlled access highways”.

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