Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone? (Ep. 44)

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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.

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.

john orton

There's an interesting scheme in Cuba (it's ok, I'm allowed to go there, I'm British).
At specific places along the roads, all drivers of publicly owned vehicles have to stop and pick up the hitch-hikers who congregate there.
Since almost all vehicles are publicly owned, this becomes a huge terminus and seems to work really well.

Marco Cannavacciuolo

"42" is the answer to the question about life, universe and everything. It comes from Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers' guide to the Galaxy".


I was also really surprised no one mentioned rideshare.
I've used rideshare a number of times, both as a driver and as a passenger. Besides being on the internet rideshare differs from traditional hitch hiking in that it normally requires some sort of monetary contribution from the passenger.
I think that the increase in the price of gasoline has made both drivers and passengers more aware of the value of the space inside a car. I would feel like a mooch if I used hitch hiking as my daily means of transportation. I'm only 25 years old and I'm curious to know if people felt like mooches when they were hitch hiking in the 60's?

Mike Martin

Here in Germany we still have lots of hitch-hiking. It works a bit differently than sticking your thumb out on the side of the highway. We have a program called "mitfahrgelegenheit". It's really simple, you just go to their website, type in when and where you want to go and somebody who is going to that place on that date will take you along. You usually pay a portion of the gas money, but it works on the honor system. Sometimes one driver will take 4 passengers along from Paris to Berlin for example. Maybe people feel safer using this system because you have to put your name into a system but really it would be easy to fake an identity... I don't know why we aren't affraid of doing this like the Americans and hitch-hiking but you never ever hear of any horor stories. I have nice looking 25 year old female friends that will drive or ride with random men without the least bit of hesitation.... Funny to see the difference in mentality, or?!


Sophia Papageorgiou

In Germany, they have actually created an online platform to match drivers and hitchhikers. Removes the risk of hitchhiking while making it more efficient http://www.mitfahrgelegenheit.de/


Here is where you can find today's hitch hikers http://sfbay.craigslist.org/rid/


This was the sorriest piece of speculation and confirmation bias masquerading as journalism I've heard in awhile. When Levitt interviewed the only guy only person who actually has studied the matter, he completely ignored his reasoning, and went back to his touchy-feely thesis that fear-mongering and the resultant breakdown in trust were the primary reasons for the decline in hitchhiking. Over and over, Levitt asserted a possible reason, then failed to back it up with credible evidence. That Levitt completely ignored the influence of the internet makes is incomprehensible.

shary boyle

Wow. This entire program was written from a completely male perspective- with almost no gender analysis to speak of. You call yourself social science?? I am a female and loved hitching in Canada during the early '90's when I was a teen- like many other adventurous kids way after the hippie days. And every single woman I have ever traded tales with about hitchhiking has a near-miss rape, rape or super-creep come-on story. It was of interest and anger to me that only men's perspectives were offered on this subject- with the exception of the one woman who paid so dearly for her openness. I loved the idea of hitchhiking- for all the best reasons. But male drivers looking for 'payback' took that liberty away, and made the innocence of sticking out a thumb one more social activity that 50% of the population are not welcome or wise to fully explore. I am a brave free woman and despise fear-mongering, but how can this episode not even mention the disparity of gender risk for this activity? Ever heard of the Highway of Tears?? Cash, grass, or ass- no rides for free.



It really wouldn't be that hard to bring back hitchhiking in a big way with smartphones. All you have to do is create an ebay style market where users have a feedback mechanism and vetting process with photos so you know who to pick up, create a Co-ride like app to facilitate the market, create a payment system so that people with cars have a little incentive to pick up riders when they can, and to maximize the usefulness make the system smart enough to find all trips that would get you closer to your destination and utilize them to minimize your travel time. If you look at the video below, but envision using more than one ride to get where you are going, you'll see how simple of an experience it could be.



Where I grew up, the common assumption was that if you needed to hitch a ride, you were too poor to have a car and thus more likely to be up to something shady.

Here in Israel, hitchhiking is very common, especially among soldiers and religious people. Cars are very expensive and public transportation leaves a lot to be desired. Women are warned against it, but overall, people have a lot of trust in one another here.


I just hitch hiked from Portland oregon to Bend Oregon, 160 miles. It took me 2 minutes, 1/2 a cigarette, in order to catch a ride.

The last time I did it, I flew a sign to bend oregon from Government Camp to Bend, Oregon, it took me less than thirty seconds.

Hitchhiking is alive and well...
of course, I'm not a bum, I just dress well and like to travel for free :)


Cheers to you! Portland being my home town and did you know that there was a hitchhikers convention there in July? I guess it is still alive but not like it used to be or still could be if people weren't so damned afraid of everything.



This Summer my Boyfriend and I Hitchhiked from California to Alaska, around Alaska and back again. It is truly a lost art. We are making a book about it. Our experience was amazing, no problems in 7500 miles! Whew!
If you're interested in our stories, we kept a blog www.thelostartofhitchhiking.com

I hope people start to realize that in this day and age, there is no place for fear. It is hard to find statistics but last I read more than twice as many Hitchhikers were the victims of Hitching crimes...


FYI.......if you visit Washington, DC you will find a large number of hitch-hikers on 14th St. NW near the National Mall. These hitch-hikers are called slugs who mainly hitch-hike rides into Virginia.


We Hitchhike! thelostartofhitchhiking.com


I'm stunned at how many people are still so fearful of HH! Statistically, there have been very few HH crimes. I realize that the ones that have made history are pretty bad but worse has happened, more frequently by people just walking down the street.
This Summer my BF and I hitchhiked 7500 miles from California to Alaska and back again. Not one problem. People were kind, generous and ultimately changed my perspective on humanity.
We kept a photo blog, if you feel like checking it out. www.thelostartofhitchhiking.com
I believe it's time to revive this lost art and learn to trust one another again. Use your common sense and you'll be fine.

Nate Shenkitup

I picked up a hitchhiker a few years ago when I was in high school...it wasn't so bad. She seemed to be on crack though which was a little unsettling.