Renormalizing hitchhiking

I’m publishing lots of my new writing on other platforms as well as here. It’s a good chance to reach larger audiences, and often to see how my writing benefits from editing. Inevitably, whatever I submit ends up shorter after an editor works with it – often that leads to stronger work, but it sometimes means that something I loved ends up cut. So I’m using the blog to publish the original pieces, which I sometimes think of as the extended dance remixes (rather than the director’s cut). So here’s a longer version of “Could the Sharing Economy Bring Back Hitchhiking?” published on The Conversation yesterday, and now on Fair Observer and Gizmodo AU.


On August 1st, hitchBOT, a robot that had successfully hitchhiked more than 10,000km across Canada and northern Europe, was destroyed by unknown vandals in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. For a week, the robot’s violent decapitation was a favorite “news of the weird” story, a chance for commentators to reflect on the Philadelphia’s public image, to muse about human empathy for robots and, of course, to warn of the dangers of hitchhiking. As one commentator put it, “With hitchhiking so rare today, especially among non-sociopaths, it has increased the chance that a sociopathic hitchhiker will get picked up by a sociopathic driver.”

At the risk of revealing any hitherto-unrealized sociopathic tendencies, I want to speak in defense of hitchhiking.

I started picking up hitchhikers during my brief stint in graduate school. I was living on the border of New York and Massachusetts in a town so tiny that it was seven miles drive to buy milk or gasoline. It was, as they say, centrally isolated – a half hour drive from my girlfriend (now my wife), and 45 minutes from Troy, NY, the county seat and home to Rensselaer Polytechnic, the school I would soon withdraw from.

Anyone hitchhiking during the upstate NY winter was doing so out of necessity, not on a lark. I began to discover that some of my neighbors didn’t have cars or couldn’t afford to keep theirs on the road, and so relied on rides to Troy for groceries or essential medical services. Giving rides was a low-cost way of meeting people in my community, getting a better sense of where I lived, and doing a good deed.

It’s something I continue doing now on the Massachusetts side of the border, in Berkshire County, where I now live. I’ve learned a great deal from my riders: how easy it is to lose your driver’s license and how expensive it can be to get it back; the state of manufacturing where we live, which employers fire workers before employees are eligible for benefits and who helps blue-collar workers build careers; what being without a car does to your financial, health and romantic prospects when you live in a rural area. I’ve had a lot of good conversations and a fair share of stilted ones. But I’ve never had a ride that made me feel uncomfortable or endangered. No one has attempted to take my keys, phone or money, soiled my car, made sexual advances or even complained about what was on the radio.

(Let me pause for a moment so I can acknowledge the privileged position that I hold to be able to offer these rides. I’m male, large enough to be physically intimidating, wealthy enough that I can afford whatever extra fuel an extra passenger costs, secure enough in my employment that I can take a few minutes to drop someone at a destination. I live in a safe place. I’m not arguing that everyone should pick up hitchhikers, just explaining why I do and why I wish more people who are similarly privileged would do so.)

Hitchhiking used to be a normal thing to do. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of American men hitchhiked from their hometowns to the bases where they shipped off to war – picking up hitchhikers was a patriotic duty. But this began to change in the 1950s, and by the mid-1970s, hitchhiking was nearly extinct.

Historian Ginger Strand argues that hitchhiking didn’t die a natural death – it was killed. As early as the mid-1950s, the FBI ran campaigns designed to convince American motorists that hitchhikers were risking their lives in getting into strangers cars, and that drivers picking up riders were in equal danger. Advertisements like the one above connected hitchhiking with Communism, and given J. Edgar Hoover’s distaste for American counterculture, it’s possible that the FBI’s war on hitchhiking was a reaction both to books like Kerouac’s On the Road, and to the tendency of civil rights activists and other student radicals to use hitchhiking as their primary means of travel.

A second blow to hitchhiking came from the visibility of serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s. Widely publicized in the news media, the “Freeway Killer” – later revealed to be three serial killers operating independently – claimed to have killed more than 100 people in California, mostly hitchhikers. While these spectacular and brutal killings captured public attention and led municipalities to pass laws against hitchhiking, a California Highway Patrol study in 1974 found that hitchhiking was a factor in 0.63% of crimes, hardly an epidemic. But the apparent connection between hitchhiking and murder, combined with law enforcement campaigns to end the practice, succeeded in de-normalizing hitchhiking.

Now, with the rise of the so-called “sharing economy”, we’re seeing the renormalization of the practice of catching rides from strangers. When “ridesharing” service Lyft launched in 2012, it encouraged passengers to exchange a fist bump with their driver, and to sit in the front seat, making Lyft more like hitchhiking for a fee than taking a taxi, distinguishing it from Uber. (By late 2014, Lyft had phased out the fist bump and the front seat, perhaps realizing that it wasn’t such a bad idea to look like the clone of a business valued at $50 billion.)

Of course, neither Lyft nor Uber are promoting hitchhiking – they’re promoting unlicensed taxi services where ambitious startup companies charge users a commission to be matched with an “independent contractor”. But the language used to promote these services could be as easily used to make a renewed case for hitchhiking. Uber advertises itself as an environmentally friendly way to take private cars off the road and to reduce solo rides with its Uber pool service. Lyft no longer advertises itself as “your friend with a car”, but it offers a “profile” service to encourage passengers and drivers to meet each other, positioning a ride as a way to make a new friendship. Ridesharing companies want the benefits of social practices like hitchhiking – they just want us to pay for them, and take a cut of the revenues.

Behind the “sharing economy” is massive effort to reshape social norms around trust, work, ownership and personal space. Most of us are used to entering a car driven by a stranger – a taxi – but sleeping in the spare bedroom or couch of a stranger is less familiar, and deeply uncomfortable for some. The front page of AirBnB’s website features a video designed to address these concerns on an emotional level. A baby in a diaper walks down a sunlight hallway while a woman’s voice asks, “Is man kind? Are we good? Go see.” The service’s tagline – “Belong Anywhere” – is a direct response to the anxiety many of us would feel about sleeping in a stranger’s house: “No, this isn’t transgressive – you belong anywhere.”

In a world where it’s too dangerous to hitchhike, why are women willing to let strange men sleep in their spare bedroom? Why are people willing to get in a vehicle driven by a stranger whose background may have been only cursorily checked?

One possible reason for this increase in trust is the technology that enables it. Since eBay made it commonplace for individuals to sell goods to one another outside the traditional retail system, technologies to track user reputation have become the norm in peer to peer marketplaces. Uber, Lyft and AirBnB all rely on mutual reputation systems: you rate your driver or host, they rate you as a passenger or guest. Develop anything other than a stellar reputation and it becomes difficult to use the system: passengers won’t ride with you, owners won’t rent to you. With economic consequences attached to reputation systems, there are consequences for bad behavior, and a strong disincentive to cheat (or worse, kidnap and rape) the other party in the transaction.

In theory. In practice, these reputation systems don’t work very well. The reciprocal rating systems have a strong social pressure towards positive ratings – because ratings are public, there’s a strong tendency towards both collusion and towards revenge. Either passenger and driver give each other top marks, or if you rate a driver unfavorably, she is likely to rate you poorly as a passenger. The net effect, as Tom Slee discovered analyzing publicly available ride sharing data, is that the overwhelming majority of ratings are the highest possible, providing no meaningful way to distinguish between great and mediocre participants. It’s not even clear that these systems deter bad actors. Despite its celebrated reputation systems, eBay was so ripe with fraud that PayPal was able to develop a lucrative business as an escrow service, holding funds until both parties in a transaction reported themselves satisfied with the outcome.

If we were really concerned about our safety when entering a car or an apartment, reputation systems wouldn’t provide much reassurance. Rapists don’t attack everyone they meet. And the real disincentive against attacking a passenger in your car or a guest in your house is not the danger to your online reputation but the legal and moral consequences of your actions.

A less generous explanation for why we trust Uber and not hitchhiking is that class-based discrimination is at work in these systems. Last year, Wired writer Jason Tanz interviewed freelance yoga teacher and Lyft driver Cindy Manit for an article about trust in the sharing economy. Asked whether she was scared to pick up riders, she explained, “It’s not just some person from off the street”, distinguishing smartphone-equipped, credit-card holding technology early adopters from the hitchhiking riffraff. While technological assurances, like the connection to a Facebook account and the guarantee of a payment via credit card offer one level of reassurance, the economic, technical and social barriers to using the service offer another assurance, that the user likely belongs to a middle to high economic class. By contrast, in my experience, people hitchhiking are not doing so as a hip alternative to Uber – they often have no other economically viable way to get from point A to point B.

Questions about discrimination in systems like Uber and AirBnB are multilayered and complicated. Writer and editor Latoya Peterson celebrated Uber in late 2012 as offering an (often expensive) escape from the frustrating and humiliating experience of trying to hail a cab as a black person. In contrast, Law professor Nancy Leong worries that the ability to see the name and photo of a passenger before choosing to pick her up could lead to conscious racial discrimination, or simply to discrimination through unconscious bias. Using data from Airbnb in New York City, Harvard Business School professors Ben Edelman and Michael Luca were able to demonstrate that black hosts are paid 12% less for their properties, suggesting that renters consciously or unconsciously discriminate against black hosts, leading to market pressure for those hosts to lower prices on their rentals. It’s unclear whether the rise of Uber and Lyft will alleviate or aggravate racial discrimination. In the meantime, though, these services signal that a user is a person of means, an assurance that may lead to increased levels of trust.

Perhaps the most optimistic answer to the question of why we trust transaction partners in the sharing economy is that most people are trustworthy. The message AirBnB is paying handsomely to promote is, ultimately, true. In 2013, 1.16 million violent crimes were reported in the US, the lowest number since 1978, when 1.09 million violent crimes were reported. But the US population in 1978 was 222.6 million, versus 318.9 million now. Bureau of Justice statistics paint the picture of nation getting steadily safer since 1994, with adults now 3x less likely to be victims of violent crime than a generation ago.

Our perceptions have not caught up to this new, safer world, which is part of why activities like hitchhiking still seem so transgressive. 68% of Americans polled by Gallup believed that crime was on the rise in the US, though only 48% believed crime in their local area was worsening. The picture that emerges is one where many Americans perceive the world as a dangerous, crime-ridden place even if they’ve not personally experienced crime in their communities, an image reinforced by media coverage of incidents of violent crime that don’t talk about larger, statistical trends.

There are technological reasons as well to believe hitchhiking is safer now than in the 1970s. 91% of American adults carry mobile phones, enabling them to call 911 if a driver or passenger becomes threatening, something that simply wasn’t possible in the 1970s. The 64% of American adults with smartphones could take a picture of the driver (a possible disincentive against sexual assault) or look up a driver’s license plate to ensure there’s not an active bulletin about a stolen vehicle or a fleeing criminal.

But while hitchhiking has become safer, it hasn’t had the advantage of a well-funded campaign to renormalize it as a behavior. And while AirBnB has the resources to encourage people to trust strangers, it’s not clear that their campaign will have benefits for pro-social, non-revenue generating activities like carpooling, couchsurfing, or hitchhiking.


Graphic and slogans credited to Dennis Nyhagen,for The Stephanie Miller Show in 2004, reproduced by Al Haug

That’s a missed opportunity. Whether or not the giants of the on-demand, peer economy believe their own rhetoric about sharing and social connection, or are simply using it as a marketing strategy, realizing that we live in a nation where it’s safe to trust other Americans, for a ride or just for a conversation, is a first step in addressing inequality, racism and political division. Picking up hitchhikers, for me, has been one of the best ways to understand the community I live in and the problems my neighbors face. Whether or not it’s the right way for you to make connections is something I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that social serendipity is too important a task to hope that sharing economy startups will accomplish it as a side benefit.

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For further reading:

A helpful Reddit thread on the death of hitchhiking in the US

An excellent piece by Molly Osberg on the history and stigmatization of hitchhiking

Ginger Strand’s Killer on the Road, which is remarkably pro-hitchhiking despite a focus on the connection between interstate highways and serial killers in America

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3 Responses to Renormalizing hitchhiking

  1. Hi Ethan,
    I started a website called http://www.wrando.com

    it really took off in Africa and 1 of the things i noticed was that africans were getting blocked by many different people on the web. they are definitely looking for a place where they will not be judged.

  2. Pingback: My Homepage

  3. Tom says:

    Really fantastic article. You did a great job and drew some insightful parallels between ‘normal’ and ‘transgressive’ behaviours,, and the lack of critical thought carried out by the average citizen.

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