Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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Where have all the hitchhikers gone?

That’s the question we ask in our latest podcast. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript here.) Anyone who has been around long enough can observe that hitchhiking numbers have plummeted. So Freakonomics Radio set out to find the numbers on thumbers and found … well, not much. Apparently hitchhiking never qualified as an important-enough mode of the transportation sector to generate heavy-duty empirical research.

So we take a whack at explaining the phenomenon. Here’s Levitt’s take:

LEVITT: Hitchhiking is a classic example of what an economist would call a matching market, where there’s a person who wants a ride, and there’s a person who’s willing to give a ride. There was some sort of equilibrium in which there was a set of people who wanted to hitchhike, and there was a set of people who were willing to pick them up. And somehow that equilibrium got destroyed. So the question is what happened to the equilibrium?

Bill James

What do you think happened to the equilibrium? Seems obvious enough: fear, right? Hitchhiking became too risky. Remember the warnings from your parents? The caution campaigns by the media? The gruesome imagery?

But was hitchhiking really that dangerous? Baseball statistician and Popular Crime author Bill James (read his earlier Q&A) says no. In fact, he believes our fears probably made it worse.

JAMES: If you have a certain number of violent people running around hitchhiking, [for] the few other people you have running around hitchhiking, the more dangerous it becomes to pick up a hitchhiker. It drove itself out of existence. Basically nobody hitchhikes anymore. … And the real danger was not hitchhiking; it was the fact that you had a certain number of random crazy people who will hurt you. As long as you have the same number of random crazy people you have the same number of violent crimes, and eliminating hitchhiking doesn’t, in my opinion, do anything to change that. So, it was a social change that protects the individual. I mean, I don’t pick up, I wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers either. I’m not nuts. I do that to protect myself. But protecting myself has no value to society.

But fear was only one part of the story, says transportation scholar Alan Pisarski. The demand for hitchhiking fell for a variety of other reasons — including a rise in the supply of drivers:

PISARSKI: In the seventies is when women began to gain greater access to driver’s licenses. If you look at the distributions today, men and women in terms of driver’s licensing is almost identical and almost ubiquitous. It’s in the ninety-two, ninety-three percentile for both men and for women.

There was also a spike in car ownership. Here, from a Pisarski report called Commuting in America III, is a look at the rise in multiple-car households:

 

Furthermore, modern cars last much longer, which means that yesterday’s hitchhiking candidate is more likely to have bought or inherited an affordable and reliable used car.

All these improvements help contribute to a stark and sobering statistic: the average vehicle commuting to and from work today carries just 1.1 people, which means about 80 percent of car capacity goes unused. Pisarski calls this a “colossal” inefficiency. It’s one reason he is chairing a session on hitchhiking at the upcoming Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting. The idea, Pisarski says, is to start a discussion that considers the past in order to inform future policy.

Can anyone say “hitchhiking renaissance?” To that end, you’ll also hear from a group of organized hitchhikers, or “sluggers,” in the D.C. area. You’ll also hear from New York Times theater critic and Shock Value author Jason Zinoman about Hollywood’s contribution to our hitchhiking fear; one story about how hitchhiking can go terribly wrong; and from a band of modern hitchhikers who use their thumbs less out of necessity than a sense of adventure.


Jim

I did all my hitchhiking in the 60's. From New Mexico to North Dakota while in the military.
Then three times from Ohio to New Orleans and back, and many other shorter trips. Also all over Western Europe, and then to Chile and back.
In the states I was picked up by many men who had hitchhiked during the depression.

It was an unbelievable experience. A half century later I still tell stories of the people I met, and I feel sorry that others can not easily experience what I did.

Margie

When I lived in Maui about ten years ago hitchhiking was alive and well and how a surprising number of people got to work. Our car broke down once taking someone to the airport and it was a wonderful feeling to know that getting a ride to the airport or back home was just a matter of sticking up a thumb. I've never felt so generally safe in such a generally friendly and laid back place.

Lynn

To find the reasons hitchhiking has declined, it would be useful to look at one place in the US where it is very active; the US Virgin Islands. The USVI provided a great natural experiment as many of the cultural factors (exposure to news and movies) are consistent with mainland US. By studying the differences, a better idea of the cause for reduction in hitchhiking could be obtained.

On St. Thomas and St. John, hitchhiking is not only common, but it is difficult to walk anywhere along the road without someone asking if you need a ride. I am comfortable both giving and taking rides, and I am comfortable with my teenage daughter doing the same. I think this can be attributed to several factors, although I only have antidotal evidence:
• It is hot.
• There are many hills between towns
• There are many people who do not have cars
(if 6 of 10 families had 2 or more cars there would be no place to drive them all…)
• Lack of reliable public transportation.
(Although the evolution of the “Safari dollar bus” is an interesting economic story.)
• The standard greeting between people who have not met (they are not called strangers) is eye contact and a cheerful “Good Morning” (“Good Afternoon”, or “Good Night”)

If Dubner and Levitt took a couple months to research the issue (I recommend January and February) a lot could be learned from a trip to the islands.

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Daedalus B Logos

I believe we underestimate the factors that have changed in our society and tend to over focus on a single cause without attempting to correlate attributing factors. This discussion shows the beneficial economics of obtaining/maintaining a low cost car. However, there seems to be no effort taking into account that in a growing service based economy, there is a larger percentage of the workforce working at different hours. A recent study attempting to exemplify the negative effects of light pollution, establish a much higher rate at which men/women are working at later hours. They step too far in correlating vitamin D deficiency (working at night) with increase in incidence of breast cancer. Regardless, if the fear is increased, just as likely that hitchhiking at night is much less achievable. Therefore having a car is much desirable if not required.

Patrick

What about cell phones? People are able to call for help now and no longer need to hitch a ride to the nearest town.

DaveyNC

Ha! Just stumbled across this possible reason why no more hitchhikers: http://goo.gl/UogIl

aaron bell

I hitchhike everywhere. Infact, over the past 8 years i've hitchiked through 30 countries and only had good experiences. Check out my story at http://www.vagablogging.net/the-complete-guide-to-hitchhiking.html or check out my photo albulm on facebook called "the great hitchhiking race 6" where it shows how 27 people can hitchhike across the country at the same time with only a few hours difference between hitchhiking and driving yourself.

www.facebook.com/thehitchhiker !

Joel

It's funny that I've never verified this, but I never hitchhike because I've been told that it was illegal in the US.

kyle

Anybody know the name of the track that plays at the end of this podcast? Its killer! Thanks!

Vicki

It's not just fear of the potential crazy person with his thumb out. It's fear of the potential crazy person who now has you trapped in a moving vehicle.

DrC

As a few have mentioned, hitchhiking is common on mountain passes where people ski backcountry, and on whitewater rivers where people need shuttles. I think this practice persists in these scenarios because there is a safety in knowing something about the person you are picking up (or the person picking you up, if they have racks on their vehicle). Most people who have given me rides on the river are also kayakers. The roads typically go right by the river, so it's obvious what's going on when I'm soaking wet in my swim trunks headed back up river.

varun

well...i am one of the few hitchhikers still going on (atleast while in college and without my own transportation or money)..and i am from India, supposedly more unsafe than a developed country...hitchhiking is down but not out...and the best way to travel a place

Shimstu

In Israel, including in the West Bank, folks hitch all the time. We call it "tremping." Someone told me once that was an Italian name. Many people, including kids going to school, use tremping as their daily form of transportation. One time a guy pulled up to a tremping spot ("trempiata") in the West Bank, where all the hitchers are Jewish settlers, mostly religious. I leaned in the care, and the guy smiled humbly at me and said, "you should know, I'm a Palestinian." It was fascinating that he would even bother to pull over and risk some sort of confrontation or unpleasantness. A teenager and I got in the car, and we rode into Jerusalem with him. Pretty cool.

Chad

Where have all the hitchhikers gone. It is obvious that that you have not been to the west, particularly the Northwest. We hitchhike everywhere, especially in lieu of the entire lack of public transit in rural areas. Hitchhiking and picking up hitchhikers one of those karmic risk taking decisions.

Zach

At least as of the summer of 2001 hitchhiking was alive and well in Alaska. I spent a few weeks with some college kids who were working at Denali National Park and all of them hitchhiked between Denali and Anchorage regularly. We had no problem finding rides with a variety of kinds of people. I wonder if this supports the supply/demand theory (less public transportation, more people without cars, longer distances to travel). I seriously doubt the risks of hitchhiking in Alaska are any lower, but both riders and drivers had no fears about it like we do in the lower 48.

AndyT

Great podcast - makes me think! My teenage and college age kids like it too. Makes for interesting conversations.

I had to write because shortly after listening to your hitch hiking podcast, I happened to hear The Doors classic song Riders on the Storm. Their line "If you give this man a ride, sweet Emily will die" really stuck out....

Andy

ben

I still hitch hike when I'm home in the UK (Gloucestershire), its the cheapest fastest way of getting around as the public transport is terrible and I don't have a car due to money/eco issues.

Used to work 4 miles away when I was 18 - 21. I used to hitch and was late about twice!!!!