On August 1, hitchBOT, a robot that had successfully hitchhiked more than 10,000 km (6,213 miles) across Canada and northern Europe, was destroyed by unknown vandals in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood.
For a week, the robot’s violent decapitation was a favorite “news of the weird” story and a chance for commentators to warn of the dangers of hitchhiking.
As one commentator put it, “With hitchhiking so rare today, especially among non-sociopaths, it has increased the chance that a sociopathic hitchhiker will get picked up by a sociopathic driver.”
At the risk of revealing any hitherto-unrealized sociopathic tendencies, I want to speak in defense of hitchhiking and consider what its “death” means for our burgeoning sharing economy.
I started picking up hitchhikers during my brief stint in graduate school.
I was living on the border of New York and Massachusetts in a town so tiny that it was a seven-mile drive to buy milk or gasoline. It was, as they say, centrally isolated, and anyone hitchhiking during the upstate New York winter was doing so out of necessity, not on a lark.
Some of my neighbors simply didn’t have cars. Giving rides was a low-cost way of meeting people in my community and doing a good deed.
It’s something I continue today on the Massachusetts side of the border, in Berkshire County, where I now live. I’ve learned a great deal from my riders: how easy it is to lose your driver’s license and how expensive it can be to get it back; and what being without a car does to your financial, health and romantic prospects when you live in a rural area.
I acknowledge I’m in a privileged position – I’m male, large enough to be physically intimidating and well-off enough to afford the extra fuel and time giving a lift may entail – but I’ve never had a ride that made me feel uncomfortable or endangered.
The fact is, hitchhiking used to be a normal thing to do.
During World War II, gas rationing turned picking up hitchhikers into a patriotic duty, helping bring fighting men to and from their bases.
Some blame a surge in car ownership for hitchhiking’s demise. Others point to the increase in women driving, suggesting that women driving alone were reluctant to pick up riders. But historian Ginger Strand argues that hitchhiking didn’t die a natural death – it was killed.
As early as the mid-1950s, the FBI ran campaigns designed to convince American motorists that hitchhikers were risking their lives in getting into strangers' cars, and that drivers picking up riders were in equal danger.
Hitchhiking was connected with Communism, and given FBI Director J Edgar Hoover’s distaste for American counterculture, it’s possible that the FBI’s war on hitchhiking was a reaction to books like Kerouac’s On the Road, and to the tendency of civil rights activists and other student radicals to use hitchhiking as their primary means of travel.
A second blow to hitchhiking came from the visibility of serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s.
Widely publicized in the news media, the “Freeway Killer” – later revealed to be three serial killers operating independently – was associated with the deaths of 100 people in California, mostly hitchhikers.
While these spectacular and brutal killings captured public attention and led municipalities to pass laws against hitchhiking, a California Highway Patrol study in 1974 found that hitchhiking was a factor in 0.63% of crimes, hardly an epidemic.
But the apparent connection between hitchhiking and murder, combined with law enforcement campaigns to end the practice, succeeded in denormalizing hitchhiking.
The sharing economy: hitching with a fee
Now, with the rise of the so-called “sharing economy,” we’re seeing the renormalization of the practice of catching rides from strangers.
Of course, neither Lyft nor Uber are promoting hitchhiking – they’re promoting unlicensed taxi services where ambitious start-up companies charge users a commission to be matched with an “independent contractor.” But the language used to promote these services could be as easily used to make a renewed case for hitchhiking.
Uber advertises itself as an environmentally friendly way to take private cars off the road. Lyft no longer describes itself as “your friend with a car,” as it did when it launched, but continues to offer a “profile” service to encourage passengers and drivers to meet each other and make a new friendship. Further challenging the idea of “stranger danger,” AirBnB encourages people to sleep on strangers' couches, with videos on their website that celebrate human kindness and assure customers that they “belong anywhere.”
So why, in a world where it’s too dangerous to hitchhike, are people willing to get in a vehicle driven by a stranger whose background may have been only cursorily checked?
One possible reason for this increase in trust: technology.
Tracking reputations on your screen
Since eBay made it commonplace for individuals to sell goods to one another outside the traditional retail system, technologies to track user reputation have become the norm in peer-to-peer marketplaces.
Uber, Lyft and AirBnB all rely on mutual reputation systems: you rate your driver or host; they rate you as a passenger or guest. Develop anything other than a stellar reputation and it becomes difficult to use the system. There are consequences for bad behavior, and a strong disincentive to cheat (or worse, kidnap and rape).
In practice, these reputation systems don’t work very well. There is strong social pressure toward positive ratings – and because ratings are public, there’s a tendency toward both collusion and revenge. The net effect, as writer and computer scientist Tom Slee discovered analyzing publicly available ride sharing data, is that the overwhelming majority of ratings are the highest possible. In other words, there is no meaningful way to distinguish between great and mediocre participants.
It’s not even clear that these systems deter bad actors. Despite its celebrated reputation systems, eBay was so ripe with fraud that PayPal was able to develop a lucrative business as an escrow service, holding funds until both parties in a transaction reported themselves satisfied with the outcome.
If we were really concerned about our safety when entering a car or an apartment, reputation systems wouldn’t provide much reassurance.
A less generous explanation for why we trust Uber and not hitchhiking is that class-based discrimination is at work in these systems.
In a 2014 Wired article about trust in the sharing economy, Lyft driver (and yoga teacher) Cindy Manit explained why she wasn’t scared to pick up riders: “It’s not just some person from off the street.” Smartphone-equipped, credit-card holding technology early adopters, in other words, are different from the hitchhiking riffraff who can’t afford Uber.
Questions about discrimination in systems like Uber and AirBnB, however, are multilayered and complicated.
Writer and editor Latoya Peterson celebrated Uber in late 2012 as offering an (often expensive) escape from the frustrating and humiliating experience of trying to hail a cab as a black person.
In contrast, University of Denver Law Professor Nancy Leong worries that the ability to see the name and photo of a passenger before choosing to pick her up could lead to conscious racial discrimination, or simply to discrimination through unconscious bias.
Using data from AirBnB in New York City, Harvard Business School Professors Ben Edelman and Michael Luca were able to demonstrate that black hosts are paid 12% less for their properties, suggesting that renters consciously or unconsciously discriminate against black hosts, leading to market pressure for those hosts to lower prices on their rentals.
It’s unclear whether the rise of Uber and Lyft will alleviate or aggravate racial discrimination. In the meantime, though, these services signal that a user is a person of means, an assurance that may lead to increased levels of trust.
Perhaps the most optimistic answer to the question of why we trust transaction partners in the sharing economy is that most people are trustworthy.
Good news: America is a safer place
The message AirBnB is paying handsomely to promote – that you can trust other people – is, ultimately, true.
In 2013, 1.16 million violent crimes were reported in the US, the lowest number since 1978, when 1.09 million violent crimes were reported.
But in 1978 the US population was 222.6 million: today it’s 318.9 million. Department of Justice and FBI statistics paint a picture of a nation getting steadily safer since 1994, with adults now three times less likely to be victims of violent crime than a generation ago.
The problem for hitchhiking is that our perceptions have not caught up to this new, safer world: 68% of Americans polled by Gallup in 2011 believed that crime was on the rise in the US.
For those still worried about the risks of hitchhiking, there is also technological argument for why it is a safer environment now than in the 1970s: 91% of American adults carry mobile phones, enabling them to call 911; 64% of American adults have smartphones and so could take a picture of the driver in case of any problem.
But while hitchhiking has become safer, it hasn’t had the advantage of a well-funded campaign to renormalize it as a behavior.
AirBnB may have the resources to encourage people to trust strangers, but it’s not clear that their campaign will have benefits for pro-social, non-revenue-generating activities like carpooling, couchsurfing or hitchhiking.
That’s a missed opportunity.
Whether or not the giants of the on-demand, peer economy believe their own rhetoric about sharing and social connection – or are simply using it as a marketing strategy – the realization that we live in a nation where it’s safe to trust other Americans is a first step in addressing inequality, racism and political division.
Picking up hitchhikers, for me, has been one of the best ways to understand the community I live in and the problems my neighbors face.
Whether or not it’s the right way for you to make connections is something I can’t judge.
But I can tell you this: social serendipity is too important an activity to be left to the advertising slogans of sharing-economy start-ups in the hope that they will make it happen as a side benefit.