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Hitchhiking - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Hitchhiking [Apr. 16th, 2008|07:29 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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I've been trying to understand why hitchhiking culture died out in America starting in the 70s, and never came back. And wondering if there's even a remote chance that it will be revived.

There appear to be three factors that happened at around the same time:
  • A rise in actual crime starting in the late 60s
  • The growth of fear-mongering mass media resulting in an increase in perceived crime
  • The growth of the Interstate highway system and the government's discouragement of hitchhiking.

The New York graph is the most dramatic, but the story is the same nationwide.
What's the situation today? Crime rates have dropped dramatically beginning in the early 90s and are now back to pre-1960s levels. The influence of the mass media is dropping, especially among the younger crowd, although many people still perceive the streets as crime-ridden. The current perception/culture doesn't match reality at all. You'll have an easier time getting a ride in India for instance, where the crime rate is an order of magnitide higher. (Edit: not quite.)

In addition, there are compelling reasons for hitchhiking (and carpooling in general) that weren't as serious in the 60s: the price of gas and the difficulty of finding parking. Given all this, can hitchhiking make a comeback?

In a few years, ubiquitous location-aware mobile devices and web services running on top of them are going to make it stupidly easy for people to organize ridesharing with strangers. So my best guess is that it's going to come back but in a different form: instead of sticking out your thumb you broadcast a request on your iphone which cars in the vicinity receive. In fact, if you're automatically shown the hitchhiker's info on your phone (or your dashboard), you're much more likely to give them a ride.

Technological change often precipitates social change, so who knows, once hi-tech hitchhiking becomes common maybe old-fashioned hitchhiking will also become more acceptable.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: hukuma
2008-04-17 01:38 am (UTC)
It's interesting that hitchhiking is basically dead, but casual carpool is pretty popular. I don't see why one is more dangerous than the other.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-04-17 02:12 am (UTC)
i think it's partly because if you know anything at all about the other person, such as their phone number, then your willingness to trust them goes up a lot. but partly it's a self-reinforcing perception: i talked to a few friends about this before making this post, and one of them said "if someone was trying to hitchhike, i'd be like hmm, why's he doing that, he must be a weirdo."

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[User Picture]From: hukuma
2008-04-21 08:52 pm (UTC)
I don't think people in casual carpools exchange phone numbers. I think the association makes a big difference: people waiting to commute home—OK, people wanting to travel to another city—murderers.
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[User Picture]From: tomtomtomtomtom
2008-04-17 01:42 am (UTC)
I think your prediction of a high-tech revolution in hitchhiking is already happening, with sites like Craiglist's rideshare or CouchSurfing.com really taking off recently.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-04-17 02:13 am (UTC)
that's a good start. but imagine an order of magnitude decrease in the amount of foreplanning necessary. as in walking out into the street on a whim with the confidence that someone will be able to pick you up. i think that's achievable.
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[User Picture]From: tomtomtomtomtom
2008-04-17 07:19 pm (UTC)
Have you heard of slugging in Washington or San Francisco? People gather by a known location and drivers pick them up to take them to work. The passengers get a free ride, and the drivers get to drive in the carpool lanes.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-04-17 07:44 pm (UTC)
very interesting, thanks!
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[User Picture]From: ephermata
2008-04-17 05:13 am (UTC)
I agree that causal rideshare will become more common. I don't see that translating to old-fashioned hitchhiking, though. Despite the waning influence of the media, a guy standing on the side of the road is still linked with "possible threat," at least for me. Even though I know picking up some random person from craigslist is not that much less (or more) dangerous.
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From: kupamanduka
2008-04-17 01:43 pm (UTC)
a guy standing on the side of the road is still linked with "possible threat,"

I agree, and that may also be related to why we feel queasy regarding lifting gun-control.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-04-17 02:48 pm (UTC)
they got to you man :(
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-04-17 06:06 am (UTC)
Do you realize you've just reinvented the Sub-etha Thumb?

Now I know why your avatar says "Vote for Zaphod!"
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-04-17 03:01 pm (UTC)
ha ha, i didn't realize it until you pointed it out. but i'm not surprised: science fiction writers regularly prove to be the most accurate forecasters of future technology.

but let me note with some amusement that actual technology yet again outdid the fictional world: not only have the guide, the thumb and the babelfish all been invented (or will soon be), they are all going to be realized in the same device :)

just like the miniaturization of computing made the sci-fi literature of asimov's generation look quaint a few decades later, convergence of computing devices is a pleasant surprise for all of us today.
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-04-17 04:01 pm (UTC)
I did check on your crime claims. Interestingly, murder rates in india and USA are nearly the same, with india being just lower. I would think that murder rate in urban india would be much higher. Amazingly that is not the case. There is not a marked difference.
http://www.data360.org/dsg.aspx?Data_Set_Group_Id=699
http://ncrb.nic.in/cii2006/home.htm

The other point being whether all crimes are reported. I believe that homicides are almost always reported. Rape being the other end where I believe only a fraction are reported. Not surprisingly, India's crime rate for rape crimes is considerably lower than US.

Mohit
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-04-17 06:58 pm (UTC)
wow. i'm having a hard time digesting that. it's funny how much my own perception deviates from reality given that i've been accusing other people of it :) i'm sure underreporting has something to do with it, at 3 levels: not reporting incidents to the police, the police not registring reported incidents, and finally statistics deliberately suppressed at various levels of aggregation. even allowing for all that, the numbers come as a surprise. thanks!
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-04-17 09:19 pm (UTC)
Considering the widespread ownership and use of guns in USA it is hardly surprising.

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