Thumbs Up, Arm Out: What Ever Happened to Hitchhiking?

Popularized during the '60s and '70s, bumming a ride with a stranger was the preferred travel method for free spirits everywhere. Why did it disappear? And can it be revived?
February 20, 2021
7 mins read

In a 1975 New York Times article, journalist Robert McGill Thomas Jr. made a matter-of-fact claim — at least, that’s what it was at the time. “Hitchhiking remains popular, and after years of anti-hitchhiking propaganda fueled by headlines of highway murders, rapes and robberies, even the authorities have come to accept the young hitchhiker as an integral part of the roadside landscape.”

Things have changed a lot since 1975. In 2021, you’d be hard-pressed to find a hitchhiker on any given roadway across the United States. The “thumbs up” gesture, the ubiquitous method of soliciting rides without having to speak a word, is used as a joke between friends more than a legitimate means of transportation.

Why has hitchhiking faded from the American landscape? What changed in the 50 years since Thomas Jr.’s assessment of the now defunct form of travel?

From Reluctant to Rebellious

While lending a ride to a fellow traveler is nowhere near a new idea, the American hitchhiking we think of today began around the Great Depression. With cars and gasoline hard to come by, one of the only ways to travel from coast to coast was by taking a gamble on the kindness of strangers.

The motivation of hitchhikers today often echoes this lack of vehicles and funds, but it’s not the desperate, last-ditch effort it once was. Post-World War II, hitchhiking went from a poor man’s taxi service to a rebellious and romanticized method of travel. In Thomas Jr.’s aforementioned article, he cites the hippie movement of the 1960s as the primary force fueling the travel method.

“Whatever the attraction, hitchhiking — once tolerated as transportation of last resort for Depression job‐seekers and later as a special accommodation to World War Jr servicemen — has become a fixture of the travel scene, the legacy of the flower child explosion of the nineteen sixties, when rebellious young people left home in record numbers.”

Regardless of who was walking alongside the highways of America, most agree hitchhiking reached its peak popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. Even so, it still remained a relatively viable means of travel throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

The War on Hitchhiking  

The small amount of hitchhiking still practiced in 2021 is seen as a risky means of transportation — a sentiment that began to widely appear in the 1970s. Like any activity that involves trusting a complete stranger, it comes with its cases of tragedy. The Santa Rosa murders, the Billy Cook spree and the killing of Ellen Reich are just a few examples of the dangers hitchhiking poses to the would-be hitchhiker or driver.

Despite the inherent dangers, the sparse studies done on the dangers of hitchhiking show no sign of escalated danger. For example, a 1974 California Highway Patrol study did not show that “hitchhikers are over-represented in crimes or accidents beyond their numbers,” and, “When considering statistics for all crimes and accidents in California, it appears that hitchhikers make a minor contribution.”

The surge of anti-hitchhiking sentiment in the mid to late 1970s was not the product of any escalated threat, but instead a targeted campaign by the FBI and local law enforcement agencies. With a combination of printed warnings and negative press coverage, officials were able to sway the minds of many that hitchhiking was not worth the risk.

Motivations for this campaign were varied. The most accepted reason was that government officials and law enforcement were concerned about the danger the new Interstate Highway System posed to those walking alongside it. These new highways were not friendly to the average hitchhiker, as they didn’t include many options for drivers to pull off and pick up a fellow traveler. Not to mention the perceived risk of vehicle accidents by hitchhikers walking into a vehicle’s lane — a perception once again debunked in the CHP study.

Following this newfound fear, numerous states began to outlaw the practice, convincing many hitchhikers that it wasn’t worth the risk of fines or detainment. The once universally accepted mode of travel became a crime in many places across the country, all in the name of protecting the people from a threat that was statistically invalid.

I’ll Drive Myself

Propaganda campaigns and legislation may have contributed to a growing anti-hitchhiking movement, but it wasn’t the biggest reason why it began to fade going into the new century. The decline of carless households in America was what killed hitchhiking for good.

According to data from Commuting in America 2013 and Governing.com, the share of households with zero cars has declined from 21% in 1960 to approximately 8.7% in 2016. Zero-car households are down to as low as 2.2% in rural areas and small towns, where a car is necessary for everyday travel.

Additionally, vehicles are lasting nearly twice as long. According to The New York Times, vehicle longevity has increased from approximately 100,000 miles in the 1960s to up to 300,000 miles in the 2010s.

The reason hitchhiking has functionally died isn’t because of propaganda campaigns or legal deterrence — it’s because there’s no need for it anymore.

The “Hitchhiking Renaissance”

While hitchhiking’s heyday is most likely gone for good, that doesn’t mean that you can’t experience this classic form of travel. In fact, hitchhiking is entering a renaissance of sorts, reflecting the new generation of young adults looking for a more romantic form of travel in today’s age of Uber and cheap plane tickets.

This modern form of hitchhiking uses technology as a substitute for the old-fashioned gestures and word-of-mouth routes. Hitchhiker Hoang-Chau Nguyen hitchhiked for years in the 2010s and documented his travels on his website, Where’s Woncho. When NPR questioned him about his use of technology to find rides, campsites and activities, Nguyen was quick to defend himself.

“Being a hitchhiker, you have to use whatever resources you have,” he said. “If you’re getting a ride somewhere for free, that’s hitchhiking.”

The internet has made hitchhiking much more successful as well. Tips, tricks and cautionary tales are all readily available in numerous online guides filled with information that the hippies of the 1960s would take years to learn on the road.

Looking to take a chance on hitchhiking? Check out Forbes’ “The 10 Most Effective Hitchhiking Tips” and Nomadic Matt’s “14 Ways To Safely Hitchhike Across The United States.”

Drew Goretzka, Michigan State University

Writer Profile

Drew Goretzka

Michigan State University
Journalism, focus on International Reporting

Telling a good story is the key to changing the world, and I hope to do just that. Currently studying at Michigan State University and currently deployed to Kosovo with the Michigan Army National Guard.

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