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.


This debate is about more than hitchhiking. It shows how blinkered "experts" tend to trust their gut on issues outside their direct experience and without research.

I'm a 5-foot-9 white male who hitchhiked across the US and back three times in my 20s during the early 1980s. I used to routinely hitch to NYC, DC and Boston from Philly all the time. I was never in danger and never scared. Sometimes I was picked up by old ladies and families. Why? Because I was the best-dressed hitchhiker they'd ever seen and the "PHILA" and "SF" signs I made were hand-lettered works of art.

Hitching is dangerous only if you look like a stoner or a bum, because then only stoners or bums will pick you up! Safe hitchhiking depends on appearing like the people you want to ride with. In fall I wore corduroys, a tweed jacket, sweater and button-down shirt. Summer was jeans and a button-down shirt -- never a T-shirt or shorts. "Worst" experiences in 21,000 miles of hitching? Three awkward come-ons by gay men.

The internet has made hitchhiking obsolete, nothing else. Frankenduf is correct. How funny to see all these brilliant experts speculate about danger and the availability of cars while missing the obvious -- that hitchhiking is in its essence a rudimentary form of physical print advertising that announces the need for a ride! In my experience, it was an efficient form of advertising because everyone passing by belonged to my target audience. But holding up a sign at a roadside is still not nearly as efficient as posting a request on an Internet ride board. So the passing of hitchhiking is part of the ongoing story of the passing and marginalization of all print media. It was perhaps the first and most primitive print communication form killed by the web, though I'm sure readers can think of others.


Stew Green

- Cellphones are the main reason hitch-hiking is generally much easier these days than 15 years ago I've got a cellphone the drivers got a cellphone so neither of us is really alone with a stranger for more than a second. + triangulation etc.
- Context is everything & there are many contexts for hitch-hiking outside the normal north American film version.
- In many contexts danger doesn't enter into the argument. And even in the context shown in north American films it's no more dangerous than many other everyday things.
- I'm pretty sure I have hitch-hiked in 100+ countries & in some countries cultural context e.g. Southern Europe in is much more difficult than others.

Martha Swaim

I hitchhiked in the late 1960s enough to have three near misses. However, two of my young friends were killed. One was killed by the hitchhiker he picked up. The hitchhiker then stole his car and was found several days and several humdred miles away. The other friend was the hitchiking passenger. When she resisted advances, he threw her out of the car and drove back and forth on top of her. She lived to go to the hospitlal with every bone in her body broken, but eventually died. Before you hitchhike, take a really good self defense class. Then go on line and find out how many sex offenders live in the areas where you plan to travel. I really can't recommend hitchhiking alone. It would be far better to travel with another human or a large dog.

Andy Waterhouse

Fear Propagated by "Bad" News
The fear of hitchhiking is part of a larger issue of hearing (bad) news from a larger population. Before we had national distribution of scary but "bleeding" local news from the entire country, no one in California heard that a hitchhiker in Illinois was murdered. This event would have had a 1/10^6 chance in the US, at most. But, when those local tragedies started getting distributed nationally, we reacted to hearing the bad news. We are wired to think that if we hear something has happened (in our country) the chance of it affecting us is at least 1/100. It seems that is the smallest "chance" we can imagine, so if we hear news that we can relate to, we think it can happen to us at a rate we need to be concerned with. News from another country is irrelevant in general.

So in response to the is new news practice, we adopted all sorts of useless and, in my opinion, socially and developmentally destructive, practices, like keeping our kids locked up at home or organizing the hell out of their after school time. In my little town where there has never been a stranger abduction in the last 100 years, parents think it is unsafe or unethical to let your kids play unsupervised after school, i.e. drop off their stuff and explore the neighborhood. They have to be at soccer, ballet, music lessons, swimming, etc...

I am sure there are plenty of other habits we have adopted in response to fear of a stranger doing something that happens to 3 people in the US each year (chances are 1/10^8), but something outrageous enough to get national press coverage. So we have abandoned hitchhiking, but don't wear bike helmets.



Why is there nothing posted about the awful story of the woman hitchhiker who was kidnapped for 7 years? That was so sad and seems to sum up why no one should hitch hike.

Dan Margulies

Forty or so years ago I hitched across the US twice, through seven countries in Europe, and up and down the east coast. Among other, more pleasant, experiences I:

1. Had a driver pull a gun from under his seat north of Binghamton, NY and start waving it around while talking about how this was good fighting country.
2. Had a driver in Vermont pull into a dark rest area and start asking about my sexual experience until I stuck a marlin spike gently into his side...upon which he took me to the next exit.
3. Had a ride out of west Berlin (1969) where a guy in the passenger seat stripped off his trench coat to reveal some sort of uniform as he jumped out in a field between watchtowers and the driver turned to me and said "you didn't see that."
4. Got a ride near the California/Arizona border in the summer of 1968 in a car with a passenger with a drop of blood on his shirt who introduced himself as Charles Manson (I'd never hear the name before and I suppose it could have been).

It seemed like a good idea at the time. :)


Eric Masaba

So how about an exchange for transit - an open marketplace with feedback built in.

Texxi is thus a system that enables the dynamic pricing and allocation of the “river of empty seats” in all the vehicles within an urban automotive fleet.

In many cities like Liverpool and Brisbane, many thousands of extra people congregate in the city centre on weekends for entertainment. With little public transport revellers can stand in taxi lines for two hours or more. Many walk a dozen miles to get home. Fighting routinely breaks out, placing added burdens on police..

Prospective passengers message their intended destination address to the system which aggregates them, placing priority on selecting companions from predefined “groups”. If no group members are present, Texxi matches on other personal preferences. When a ridematch has been made, passengers receive the vehicle details (driver’s name, registration plate) as well as a pickup location. Similarly, drivers receive location and passenger details.

Although initially demonstrated as an exclusively SMS-based system, the overall concept is to allow any suitable messaging mechanism communion with the exchange. The patent application from 2005 - 2006 shows this.

Firstly read each of:

Market Size and Opportunity ( http://bit.ly/vtpi-EqTransit-3 )
The New Transport Economy ( http://bit.ly/vtpi-EqTransit-1 )
The 7 Modes of Texxi ( www.slideshare.net/secret/4TWoRsPso04SeZ )

And for interest, here are some news reports.

http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/003216.html ( 2005 WorldChanging Article )


Karl Johnson

Excellent podcast. As a parent I questioned all of the fears parents have about their kids being taken by strangers. The book "Raising Free-Range Kids" I read a while back looks at the stats in the same light as this podcast does.


Interesting article, it seems very much alive. I have done it on my bike trip when i broke my wheel a few times, i have done it in france, and Romania is huge on hitch hiking. If i recall Netherlands has liftplaatz for thumbing rides. It may not be as popular as back in the day, but its still there and I see alot of smaller roads with people hitching, especially up oregon, cali and washington. Too many good stories and good times to pass up. Maybe i am just crazy then


I used to hitchhike in the late '70s and early '80s.

Most of people offering rides back then had been in the military after WWII. Back in their day, when they'd get leave, if they didn't have a buddy going the same direction who had a car, they would hitchhike. Many of these old guys told me that being on the needy end of the transaction back then made them a lifelong picker-upper of hitchhikers. (Of course, they didn't say it quite like that)

Truckers were the only other large contingent. They were for interstate travel and you had to have a sign. Their motivation was someone to keep them awake with conversation.

I think the passing of that generation of just after WWII is an additional reason there is less hitchhiking.


I hitchhike a lot. Here's a relevant link to my writings about hitchhiking through Latin America...http://www.velabas.com. I think the problem with making sense of hitchhiking is that often it cannot simply be described by the supply and demand of transportation options. Many hitchhikers are not hitchhiking because they don't have a car, and many are not hitchhiking because they don't have the money for a bus. They're hitchhiking because it's a way to better understand a place, and to meet strange people. Despite what you might think, hitchhiking is actually once more on the rise. The USA is slowly catching up as well, but in Latin America and Europe, for example, you see many. Websites like couchsurfing, which, once someone gets over their false instinctual reaction that it's inherently dangerous, opens them up to the world of hitchhiking as well. When you send a couchrequest, for example, hitchhiking is an option under the drop down list of transportation methods. There is also an active hitchhikers group on couchsurfing. There are also hitchhiking organizations, principle among them being digihitch.com. Hitchhiking, I urge, should not be analogous with ride share, and should definitely not connote internet organization. I despise when society bends a word to their perceived meaning. Hitch HIKING, means that you're throwing your hitch (thumb), and you're often walking.

Well, that's my two cents. Pick up hitchhikers... it's unlikely that they're murder or rob you.



I'm sure there are fewer hitchhikers than there were 30 or 40 years ago. However, there are still a good number of hitchhikers out there. One reason most people don't see them is because they are in their office or home for all or most of the day and therefore completely unaware of what transpires on the interstates and highways.

During the 1990's, I spent almost 5 years hitchhiking around the states, Mexico, the Bahamas and Venezuela and there were a lot of other hitchhikers out there during that time. I'd never really seen many hitchhikers until I went hitchhiking. It's difficult for one to know what is going on as far as road life, or hitchhiking, is concerned until they get out there.

If you're interested, I just published a memoir about my experiences on Amazon- http://www.amazon.com/Travels-Road-Dog-Hitchhiking-Americas/dp/1478348461/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1351401742&sr=1-1&keywords=travels+with+a+road+dog


Tim Shey

I have hitchhiked the United States for a number of years. I met a lot of great people. I think there are a lot less hitchhikers today then there were 20 or 30 years ago.

"Bill Would Legalize Hitchhiking in State"

Tim Shey

I have had two books published on hitchhiking: "High Plains Drifter: A Hitchhiking Journey Across America" (2008) and "The First Time I Rode a Freight Train & other hitchhiking stories" (2012).



oh I just found this podcast now and realize, that this is exactly the topic I have been writing my bachelor thesis about. If anyone is interested in my analysis, I am more than happy to spread and share. greetings

Amien Orion

What I found to be a major roadblock to hitch hiking is that truck drivers who are under contract (rather than owners of their own cab) are strictly forbidden from taking hitchers. I don't know the legal history behind this, but I was told repeatedly that this is a relatively recent development.


You might be interested in "HitchBOT The Hitchhiking Robot To Travel Canada This Summer "



I love this. But i will give you ass, grass or cash if you can give me any reliable data on just how much hitchhiking has declined since the 1970's. my bet is, not by much.