A Hitchhiker's guide to my research on the history of hitchhiking
1.Why study and promote hitchhiking?
Hitching is a mode of transport which has been practiced by millions of people of all ages on every continent for over a century. It has generated huge popular cultural interest, but very little historical documentation and limited academic analysis. Every generation frames it differently from the previous one: early hitchhikers were regarded as enterprising adventurers; those hitchhiking during times of war or fuel shortage during the twentieth century were part of a narrative of civic duty; during economic upturns, the mood has swung from the heroic liberated individual to the feckless scrounger not buying into the consumer dream. Regardless of our individual views on hitchhiking, it is clear that it presents an opportunity to talk about travel in terms of the place of cooperation in our societies, how much we trust each other, if we are ever truly free, and whether or not human nature precludes the possibility of ever really being nice enough to create more democratic and ecological societies.
Some examples of hitchhiking in history: clockwise - North America, Romania, Slovakia, Russia (credit: Reuters/Vostock)
2. How can hitchhiking help us with the climate emergency which the world faces?
- Sharing the road in anyway is important and there are many ways to do it. You don't even have to be a lone hitchhiker on the outskirts of a town anymore! All kinds of hi-tech options are available from on-line ride share schemes to 'casual carpooling' (or slugging), which takes place outside a number of US cities. These are usually officially approved and aim to relieve congestion and reduce air pollution. They also provide an important social function: reducing stress, boosting serotonin levels, learning about other lives, listening to other people's music.
It is as simple as this ...
- The ability of societies to transform their economies is apparent every time there is a fuel crisis. People adapt very easily when there is a sense of collective responsibility. During World War 2 many countries encouraged sharing the road as part of their planning, with hitchhiking practiced by all age groups and encouraged by governments (sometimes with celebrity endorsements). We have to treat climate breakdown as an opportunity to do some smart thinking about how we and the goods we need move around. The current political discourse around 'New Green Deals' suggests that there is an ecological appetite for restructuring our economies from the grassroots (or maybe kerbsides) upwards.
3. Where else has organised hitchhiking worked?
- Many of the most successful hitchhiking experiments come from countries with 'socialist' or 'communist' pasts.
- Poland ran a hitchhiking (or autostop) 'voucher' scheme for 35 years (1957-1995), which the government thought encouraged young people to become more rounded citizens whilst benefiting the economy. Many Western hitchhikers have talked about trying to set up something similar using interactive technologies. (The Russians also tried the 'voucher' scheme in the 1960s).
- Cuba continues to use the 'amarillo' (or yellow jacket) hitchhiking scheme, employing officials at busy intersections to ensure that people get picked up. This started in 1990 as a result of the lack of Soviet Union oil at the end of the Cold War and the effects of the American boycott.
- Some countries provide official hitchhiking points: 'liftplaats' (the Netherlands), 'tramp-stelle' (Germany) or 'trempiada' (Israel, Palestine), but in many 'transport poor' parts of Africa it is just a question of heading out of town to a generally recognised place for vehicles to stop. In South African provinces, hitchhiking has been the subject of governmental research and policies because it can come into conflict with taxi firms during 'price wars'.
- At the other end of the hitchhiking spectrum, there is an official season of hitchhiking races which operates principally in European countries and Russia. This is accompanied by a strong social scene represented by dozens of hitchhiking clubs and an annual International Hitchhiker Gatherings (see www.hitchwiki.org)
There are dozens of hitchhiking clubs in these regions and there is even a Hitchhiker Museum in Slovenia, set up by Miran Ipavec.
4. Hang on! I thought hitchhiking had vanished because we've stopped trusting each other and only psychos and weirdos do it now!
- Hitchhiking as a visible and common practice declined in many countries for very clear reasons:
(1) availability of cheaper vehicles to the prime hitching age group of 16-25 years old;
(2) more affordable public transport for young people (e.g. rail cards, more long distance coaches) ;
(3) loss of 'cultural capacity' in the West (i.e. it fell out of fashion and became more niche). Many things fed into this: an unsympathetic political climate during the 1980s, a more risk averse public culture, the globalisation of media spreading the occasional 'bad'' news story faster and shifts in long distance leisure travel through Inter-rail tickets, cheaper air fares and more organised 'Gap' year packages. Most of the conspiracy theories about the decline of hitchhiking are hard to find evidence for, although in the USA FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ran a deliberate campaign against it, because he thought that all hitchers were communists or criminals.
The bigger picture is that our societies are generally becoming more trusting and safer, even though popular opinion (and current political trends) appears to suggest the reverse. Better communication and availability of information means that larger numbers of people are connected to the issues which effect them. Empathy and participation are alive and well, and it's our lumbering political structures, wasteful economic practices and patriarchal religions which are in need of overhaul. Meanwhile, grassroots and more gift-based economics rolls on, as they have for thousands of years, currently well represented by self-organised activities such as 'couch surfing', where - as with hitchhiking - the kindness of strangers is proving ever popular.
However, as with all forms of transport, hitchhiking does carry risks (however negligible) and anyone interested in doing so for the first time should check out the very comprehensive advice on www.hitchwiki.org
5. So, what is a 'vagabond sociology' and how does one 'think like a hitchhiker?'
The term ‘vagabond sociology’ was coined by Danish human rights campaigner Jacob Holdt in his pioneering book American Pictures, which was a hitchhiker’s view of poverty and racism in the Deep South during the 1970s and '80s. For Holdt, being on the road gave him a unique analytical vantage point to see some of the things which were often hidden from sight and not studied enough or reported in the media. Yet because he was hitchhiking and relying on 'random acts of kindness' and the 'gift economy', he believed that he could also more easily observe the cooperative potential in all people, which gave hope for the future.
Being mobile and experiencing the world on the margins allows one a certain kind of intellectual freedom. In a number of my writings I suggest that the hitchhiker is an 'ideal type' of sociological observer, through whose eyes we can look more critically how our societies are organised, how we treat and trade with one another, and how we responsibly coexist with the natural world. So, we can 'think like a hitchhiker' even if
we have no intention of ever lifting a thumb or hand into the road.
Some of the theory behind this is explained in
(a guide to being a 'vagabond sociologist').
credit: Katja Gornik