Can hitchhiking save the economy?

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black hills highway

The folks at Freakonomics don’t always nail it, but they I love the way they tackled the economic benefits of hitchhiking, debunking the myth that it’s a huge risk, and suggesting we bring it back into the mix as a part of getting our financial feet back under us.

I hitched a lot during my late teens. It was a nearly-free way to see the world, though it entailed a lot of awkward conversations. That was fine because all the conversations I had at that age were awkward. It also meant many hours of listening to people talk about their loneliness, which seems to be one of the main reasons one might pick up a hitchhiker in an era when it’s not just a matter of course. I wised up a lot thanks to those monologues, though now that I’m older and less patient the prospect of them is more of a deterrent. There’s a reason the sluggers — organized hitchhikers — of the Bay Area and DC have such strict codes about conversation.

Sometimes, of course, traveling by thumb led to amazing connections and marvelous adventures. And most of the time I did feel safe. Of course some guys would pick me up because they had hopes I would sleep with them. Hope is just that, though, and I felt safer with the worst of them than I’ve felt on some dates. Actually, my sense is that picking up a random stranger creates more of a social distance, or at least less of a sense of social expectation or entitlement of the sort that leads people you actually know to fuck with you.

The Freakonomics piece covers a lot of ground from slugging to the 70s to crime stats to the economic history of transportation. On the latter note, they asked a historian if he thinks that it would be a good thing if us U.S. Americans were to get over our fear and take up hitching again. He responded:

Yes, I do. And the reason I do is that we have a better society when we can trust one another. And wherever and whenever there’s an evaporation of systems based on trust I think there’s a loss to society. I also think that one evaporation of trust in society tends to feed another, and that we would have a better society if we could, rather than promoting fear and working to reduce the places where terrible things happen, if we could promote trust and work on building societies in which people are more trustworthy. I think we’re all better off in a million different ways if and when we can do that.

I think a lot about the way being in a car is socially isolating in the same way that using the internet is. Road rage and blog comments seem to have so much in common. I think a lot of us would be better off out on the streets, having awkward conversations with each other.