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How the Internet Is Restoring the Market for Hitchhiking


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.