Thursday, January 31, 2013

Might hitchhiking be the best transit solution in sprawling and rural areas?

Public transportation agencies around the country have long struggled with how to provide effective, cost-efficient transportation choices in suburban communities where few people take buses, and densities are too low to justify infrastructural costs of subways or light rail.  I’ve been contemplating whether hitchhiking, er, ride-sharing, might be the best, decentralized way to deal with this issue.

This issue came to mind recently because a student of mine wrote a really interesting post on my clinic’s blog (yeah, I make my students blog, don't you?) about his experience in a one-car family where his wife often needs the car during the day, and so he is left to find alternative means home.  Central Boise, where the law school is located, is compact by western city standards, and the city maintains a decent bus system for a city its size.  But as is often the case with bus systems, it doesn’t really take you where you want to go without transfers and an inevitable wait.  On nights when he needed a ride home and his wife had the car, my student started hitchhiking instead of taking the bus home.  Now, Boise is one of those aggressively friendly western towns (think of Arthur Chapman’s “Out Where The West Begins”), so maybe you chalk up his willingness to hitchhike, and others’ willingness to give him a ride, as a matter of culture.  But maybe we have all just come to believe that hitchhiking is more dangerous, and more deviant, than it really is.  Or should be.

Most of us probably think of that lot by the side of the road, at best, like Jack Kerouac presented them in his poem “Hitchhiker”:

"Tryna get to sunny Californy" -
 Boom. It's the awful raincoat
 making me look like a selfdefeated self-murdering imaginary gangster, an idiot in a rueful coat, how can they understand my damp packs - my mud packs -
                 „Look John, a hitchhiker"
                  „He looks like he's got a gun underneath that I. R. A. coat"
                  "Look Fred, that man by the road"                   „Some sexfiend got in print in 1938 in Sex Magazine" –
                 „You found his blue corpse in a greenshade edition, with axe blots"

Undoubtedly, we’ve been told there must be something wrong with that person by the side of the road and they probably intend to do us harm.  But if there was not a stigma around hitchhiking, I mean ride-sharing, maybe we would get more people like my student:  a bright guy whose family can normally do with just one car but on occasion finds himself stuck.  Should we really be forcing such families to buy a second car just for that occasional moment when schedules collide? 

Probably the best known hitchhiking program in the country is the “Casual Carpool” program in San Francisco’s East Bay, where well-heeled suburbanites line up to pile into cars and cross the Bay Bridge into San Francisco for a day’s work in the Financial District.  In this program, the act of hitchhiking has completely lost its sense of danger, a lot of people are getting to work quickly, and a lot of infrastructure never had to be built to accommodate all the cars those people would otherwise be driving to work.

Out in Wyoming, which might be about as far ideologically as you can get from Berkeley, there appears to be agreement at least on this:  hitchhiking might be good not just in urban areas, but rural ones, too.  In fact, a newly introduced bill in Wyoming’s Senate this term would make hitchhiking legal in that state. 

So who knows.  Maybe all of that noodling of transportation engineers about how to solve the problem of how to get lots of people from here to there in far-off distant ‘burbs, and even rural areas, ultimately boils down to changing our sentiments about the hitchhiker.  In urban areas, perhaps it means institutionalizing the act to some degree, such as with the Casual Carpool.

For those who want to learn more, a Freakanomics podcast from 2011 does a great job of discussing the relative danger of hitchhiking, and also its potential for dealing with rides in suburban sprawl, and is available here.  And a hat tip to my student, Nicholas Morgan, who also recommends these sites: Adventuresauce, the hitchwiki, vagabondish’s 10 tips, and this overview of state laws on the issue.

Stephen R. Miller

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I agree hitchhiking might be the best decentralized way to deal with this issue.Hitchhiking in the rural areas is even easier, and a ride can be found even in the smallest roads.

Posted by: Chinatown Bus lines | Feb 2, 2013 1:32:04 AM