Lentis/Hitchhiking in the Digital Age


Hitchhiking is a method of soliciting a ride when personal transportation is not available. The popularity of this transportation in the United States fluctuated throughout the 20th century. In the 21st century, traditional hitchhiking has decreased in popularity. Contributing factors include legal restraints, safety concerns, and increased automobile ownership; however, rapid developments in technology such as ride share applications provide an alternative to hitchhiking. Nowadays, passengers can find rides online without having to wait on the road for a stranger to pick them up. Digital technology has transformed hitchhiking by increasing connectivity of people with similar transportation goals.

In present society, most documented hitchhiking occurs in online blogs. Participants are able to use technology such as cell phones and social media to increase their perceptions of safety. The aspects of adventure and trusting other people are common enticements of modern hitchhikers.[1][2] The digital age has introduced new technology that assists modern hitchhikers on their journeys. This chapter aims to explore the factors that influence the agendas of hitchhikers in the digital age.


1920s and 1930sEdit

Hitchhiking terms start appearing in literature during the 1920s.[3] This was during the rise of mass-produced automobiles in America.[4] By 1935, the Academy-Award winning film "It Happened One Night" included a hitchhiking scene. Hitchhiking gained popularity through the Great Depression when people couldn't afford cars, trains or were seeking a free ride to a better opportunity. Homeless men would hitchhike across the nation, while offering work in exchange for temporary housing.[5] Hitchhiking provided a free and legal alternative to rail riding, another common way to get around in the mid-20th century.[6]


During the Second World War, American citizens were encouraged to join "car clubs" in order to save resources like gas and rubber.[7] Citizens could enroll in services that offered uniformed soldiers free rides. Picking up a soldier returning from the war was largely regarded as a patriotic duty.[8]


In the 50s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a campaign against hitchhiking. The efforts to dispel hitchhiking arguably have roots in hitchhiking's associations with Communism during this period.[9] [10]

1960s and 1970sEdit

The sixties and seventies secured hitchhiking as a symbol of counterculture. At what is remembered as the height of hitchhiking, hitchhiking actually starts to decline.[11] The decline is due in part to the seeds of distrust and fear of strangers planted by the FBI's anti-hitchhiking campaign,[9] but also due to a changing economy. With cars and buses being built more reliably and the cost of airfare decreasing, alternatives to hitchhiking became more viable.

Decline in Traditional HitchhikingEdit

Transportation researcher Alan Pisarski stated, "It used to be very normal to see someone sticking their thumb out and pick them up" during the Depression and World War II.[12] Theories to explain the decline of hitchhiking have been proposed.

More people own cars, fewer need to hitchhikeEdit

Percentage of US households that own cars

Car ownership is a major factor in the decline of hitchhiking. The percentage of U.S. households that own cars has increased significantly; thus, the need for hitchhiking has decreased. There has been an increasing trend in the percentage of U.S. households that own two or more vehicles, and a downward trend in households that own zero or one car.[13] It is likely that cars have become more accessible, reducing the need to hitchhike as a mode of transportation.

Safety and LegalityEdit

Road Signs against Hitchhiking

Towards the end of the 1930s, many stories circulated about drivers who fell victim to the crimes of hitchhikers. These unpleasant "occurrences" likely motivated the creation of laws that protected motorists.[14] Police departments and interstates discouraged and even banned hitchhiking in some areas. Local and federal law agencies started using ‘scare tactics’ to discourage hitchhikers and drivers from partaking in the phenomenon. A 1973 FBI poster “Death in Disguise,”[15] warns drivers that the hitchhiker might be a ‘sex maniac’ or ‘vicious murderer.’ Many areas of the U.S. limit hitchhiking in some way.[12] Limitations range from completely prohibiting hitchhiking, to no limitations. Though no federal laws prohibit pedestrians from interstates, states are allow to ban non-motorized transportation.[16] These restrictions limit hitchhikers from roads with high traffic.

Hitchhiking in Different CulturesEdit

People hitchhike for various reasons. Hitchhiking has a lower environmental impact due to ride sharing. People also hitchhike to seek risks and adventures or simply for the experience. The Real Hitchhikers Guide by Jack Revheim categorizes a hitchhiker as an adventurer, backpacker, vagrant, runaway, pilgrim, geocatcher, or traveler. The guide provides hitchhiking information for various countries, which may view hitchhiking differently.[17] Hitchhiking is illegal in some countries and encouraged in others.


Although China has the largest population in the world, people rarely hitchhike. With the rapid development of its economy,[18] China's tourism is booming and an increasing number of people start to understand the concept of hitchhiking. Hitchhiking rules in China vary due to the size and complexity of the country. Instead of the thumb-up gesture, people may wave their arm up and down.[19] There are no current regulations of hitchhiking in China. Hitchhikers on developed roads likely will not be asked for money, whereas rural participants may be.[19]


It is estimated that under 5% of the Cuban population owns a car.[20] Hitchhiking is common and culturally accepted in Cuba. Government vehicles, differentiated by the blue their license plates, are legally obligated to pick up Cuban hitchhikers.[21] It is likely that hitchhiking is common due to the inaccessibility to cars.

Modern Day HitchhikingEdit

Though the popularity of hitchhiking has been disrupted, the digital age has transformed traditional hitchhiking. There has been a rise of online hitchhiking guidebooks, forums, and communities which allow constant connectivity. Every year, hitchhikers come together for a “hitchgathering”, an organized trip by hitchhiking enthusiasts.[22]

Digital Resources for HitchhikersEdit

Websites like Hitchwiki are created by hitchhikers for hitchhikers as advice forums that foster the hitchhiking community. Information on legal, social and safety issues are provided for various countries. Wikitravel.org provides similar insights on how to catch rides, as well as the basic concepts of hitchhiking. Resources like these put "wannabe" hitchhikers in touch with the right resources to learn the craft.

Supplements to HitchhikingEdit

There are apps that hitchhikers can use to supplement their lifestyles. On its website, Couchsurfing describes itself as a "service that connects members to a global community of travelers." This assists hitchhikers traveling long distances in finding housing accommodations. The World Wide Web brings like-minded people together so that they can share resources and experiences.

Alternatives to HitchhikingEdit

Applications such as Uber and Lyft charge users for transportation if a personal car is not accessible. Uber introduced its UberPOOL function in 2016, which allows people in large cities to share rides with other unknown users heading in the same direction. The GPS phone application, Waze, has introduced Waze Carpool to facilitate carpools and encourage users to reduce the number of cars on the road. Hitchwiki considers rideshare apps like these as an "alternative to real hitchhiking." Though rideshare may not be considered true hitchhiking, it facilitates interactions with strangers in order to decrease transportation costs.

Slugging is the act of picking up a stranger to meet the minimum occupancy for high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes. Slugging generally occurs in metropolitan areas when people are going to work.[23] This is a way that drivers have adapted to legal situations, and an opportunity for hitchhikers to utilize commuters for rides.


Hitchhiking in the digital age provides more safety nets for hitchhikers and drivers than those available at the dawn of hitchhiking in the twenties. Cell phones offer mobile and instant contact in the event of an emergency. Drivers and riders feel they call 911 or text family members and friends if they feel unsafe.[24] Most cell phones now have camera capabilities. Drivers and riders can take pictures of each other, of the license plate of a car, as evidence in the event a crime occurs. Digital resources, websites like Hitchwiki, have tips to teach new hitchhikers to be safe and protect themselves.


HitchBOT was a hitchhiking robot that traveled over 10,000 kilometers across Canada and 300 miles through the United States.[25] The robot successfully made the trip from Nova Scotia to British Columbia by hitching 19 rides from random drivers, though it did not experience the same luck in the United States. In the digital age, it is possible for a robot to travel independently, assuming people are willing to pick it up and give it a ride. This is an example of how different cultures approach hitchhiking with their openness to travelers, and foreshadows future opportunities as technology continues to advance.

Hitchhikers on a MissionEdit

Hitchhikers have begun to find a niche on social media sites. Adventure blogger and photographer Matthew Karsten travels and shares pictures of his adventure to over 100,000 Instagram followers. He uses Evernote to record experiences and enhance future trips. In 2015, he hitchhiked across the continental United States. He used GPS tracking the entire trip to share his location on his blog. Updates were also posted to his Facebook and Twitter accounts with the hashtag #HitchUSA. He claims to enjoy the travel for three main reasons: affordability, safety and adventure.[26]

Calvin College graduate Josh deLacy hitchhiked across the United States in 2013. He traveled without a wallet, but rather a sign marked "Traveling on Trust." His experiences were blogged as he evaluated the concept of trust in modern U.S. society.[27] This follows the theme of institutional safety expressed by other hitchhikers.

Bogdan Budai emphasizes utilizing resources like HelpX and WWOOF to make travel feasible. His belief is that money doesn't need to prevent one from going on a journey. He posts videos of immersing himself in different cultures on his webpage. He has even began selling exclusive stories from days on his trip. The money is dedicated to plain or boat tickets if he is unable to hitchhike to his desired destination.[28] He expresses the common hitchhiker motif that hitchhiking makes travel and adventure affordable.

Technology and Future of HitchhikingEdit

Self-Driving CarsEdit

Over 10 million self-driving cars are projected to be on the road by 2020.[29] The thumb-up gesture likely will not hold meaning, which may lead to other forms of hitchhiking. For example, an application can be constructed that combines the ride sharing concepts of Uber with self-driving cars. This scenario relies on the hitchhiker having enough money to afford the service. Another alternative could involve self-driving car sensing a hitchhiker. If the car has an available seat and some other conditions are met, the car could somehow notify and pick up the hitchhiker.

Hitchhiking AppsEdit

Currently, most ride sharing applications are similar to taxi services. Another application can be developed that notifies a driver if there is a hitchhiker nearby or on the same route. The application could also allow hitchhikers and drivers to create profiles with pictures of themselves and ratings and reviews of their previous experiences, which would increase safety. The application would be different from the other ridesharing applications because it is short-notice and dynamic.

"Real-time ridesharing" is a similar concept that involves arranging one-time shared rides in short notice and maximizes car capacity by better utilizing available seats. Still, it relies on responsiveness and user network availability.


Before, people often hitchhiked because they did not have money to travel. Today, most ride-sharing applications operate on the basic assumption that users have a smartphone and money to spend on a ride. Technology may be stripping the culture away from the people who created the adventures by demanding a certain level of financial standing to participate. This opens these experiences to wealthier, more risk-averse people and as they take ownership, the entire nature of the experience changes. Those who partake in traditional hitchhiking tend to have common ideologies. They claim that hitchhiking is about adventure and that the world is safer than most people think.

Hitchhiking in the digital age provides a way for like-minded people to come together. Sites like Hitchwiki encourage the promotion of this practice and tell newcomers how to get involved. Hitchhiking may be as simple as using a mobile phone to schedule a ride. People share their resources in addition to ideas. Apps like Couchsurfing and HelpX put people who are willing to work for temporary housing and meals in contact with the appropriate people. Finally, digital tools and technology increase the perceived safety of hitchhiking. Computers, cell phones and GPS have added a new safety net that was absent when negative attitudes towards hitchhiking began to develop. The immediacy of information and constant contact with others provides a new sense of assurance when entering the car of a stranger. People can hitchhike and have an adventurous spirit with less fear. The continued concept of free transportation allows adventurous and trusting individuals to explore the world and meet new people. Technology has modified hitchhiking from a risky activity to something accessible to everyone through ride share applications and websites.


  1. Delacy, J. (2013). Traveling on Trust. [Web log comment]. http://joshdelacy.com/travelingontrust/
  2. Karsten, M. (2015). Hitchhiking Across America: One Ride at a Time. [Web log comment]. https://expertvagabond.com/hitchhiking-america/
  3. Jean-Baptiste Michel*, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray, William Brockman, The Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden*. Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books. Science (Published online ahead of print: 12/16/2010)
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  8. Call for 1200 men to serve as stretcher-bearers issued. (1942, Mar 05). Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) http://proxy.its.virginia.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/165295250?accountid=14678
  9. a b Zuckerman, E. (2015). Could the sharing economy bring back hitchhiking?. The Conversation.
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