Thumbs Out

Yesterday (at time of writing) I went hitchhiking for the first time, for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that covering around 100 miles in the back seats of strangers’ cars was both a surprisingly fun and eye-opening experience, and one that has made me far more inclined to pick up a hitchhiker in future. And so, in recognition of this event and in solidarity of those with outstretched thumbs across the land, I thought I’d dedicate a post to this strangest and most inventive of transport solutions.

Hitchhiking is an American invention, and when one considers the the very nature of hitchhiking in a historical context it becomes easier to see why. For hundreds and thousands of years of human civilisation, the main method of transport (other than walking) was the horse, and since horses a) didn’t travel much faster than humans could walk most of the time and b) don’t usually have space for two, standing by the side of the road with one’s thumb out was unlikely to solicit a faster passage than using one’s own two feet. The only people capable of offering lifts would be merchants with carts, and although they doubtless would have offered lifts from time to time, it would be a rare and abnormally trusting merchant who would let an unknown stranger travel with them on what was usually a journey of several days, or at least hours at a minimum. Thus, hitchhiking in its current form could not develop until the development and widespread use of a mode of transport fast enough to allow a hitcher to travel large distances in a quite short space of time (much more than they could walk), too fast for them to approach by simply asking the driver as they trotted past, and with enough space that an empty seat was a regular occurrence. The car, in other words, and the first place where cars caught on in a big way was the USA.

America first fell in love with the car during the economic boom of the 1920s, during which cars such as the Model T Ford sold in their thousands and thousands- whilst cars were a rare luxury in Europe, in America they became a far more ubiquitous. However, this didn’t mean they were a car ‘for everyone’; ’20s America was a place of huge economic disparity*, with abject poverty being especially common amongst the black and (rapidly growing) immigrant community. This only got worse as the 1930s rolled around and America plunged into the Great Depression- huge sectors of the lower middle and upper working class collapsed into poverty and homelessness, far from any position in which they could afford a car of their own. And so, hitchhiking became increasingly common practice; America had the crucial ingredients of a society becoming increasingly built around the car yet a population not rich enough to universally own them, so the practice of essentially ‘borrowing’ transport from strangers made an awful lot of sense.

From its American origins, hitchhiking (along with widespread use of cars) spread to Europe and eventually across the whole world. However, its popularity has fluctuated heavily with both the passage of time and across continents. Hitchhiking in Britain blossomed during the post-war years among students: as the socialist reforms of the first labour government began to rejig the country’s social structure, the number of people from poorer backgrounds going to university grew. For many students, hitchhiking was the only practical mode of transport: few could afford their own car (Britain hadn’t taken social equality quite that far yet) and the train network was expensive, unreliable and impractical for many. However, from the mid-1970s onwards hitching began to slowly decline in Britain and America, although it remained common practice until the late 1980s: the introduction of the young person’s railcard made train travel a much more feasible option for many, and the increasing prosperity of the western world over these few decades made it increasingly feasible for students or their families to organise car travel on their own. Perhaps partly due to this reduction in the number of students in the hitchhiker population (and thus increasing the relative proportion of dodgy folk among their number), and definitely thanks to a couple of well-publicised murder cases around this time, public trust in hitchhikers began to steadily decline and the whole activity began to take on a decidedly shady appearance in the public eye: risky for both halves of the equation and advised against for safety reasons. As the population of students unable to afford/acquire their own transport home shrank still further, hitching almost died off completely, becoming almost solely the reserve of Eastern European migrant workers (who have a public image problem of their own that has done nothing to redress the shady public perception of hitchhiking). Elsewhere in Europe, however, the practice is more common, and it is currently beginning to enjoy a tentative renaissance (from ‘all but dead’ to merely ‘very uncommon’) in Britain as a) former hitchers have begun to bemoan the loss of such a once-beloved practice and b) students have started hitching as a charitable/competitive event.

Like so many other things, hitchhiking is by its nature along neither good nor bad- at its best it is just people helping each other out & getting some conversation in the bargain, and at its worst is plain dangerous for both parties. Whether it ends up being the former or the latter is, in the end, merely the luck of the draw regarding the practitioners on both sides of the exchange. Since so many hitchers have reported completely safe and uneventful trips, I guess, on balance, that shows we aren’t such an awful bunch after all.

*It’s worth noting that, although the poverty is infinitely less widespread, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the gap between rich and poor our society today is far more unequal than the 20s ever was.

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