The Vault: Sharing the Load

18 September 2013 Patrick Witton

The Vault: Sharing the Load

By Geoff Charles (1909-2002) via Wikimedia Commons

Patrick Witton, Ed#375, March 2011

As Australia’s cities grow, so do problems for commuters. Public transport isn’t keeping up and traffic jams are getting worse. Here's one solution, but it has a hitch.

The last time I hitchhiked, it took two lifts to get home. The first car to stop was a matt-blue saloon with one word on the numberplate: GOSPEL. The affable driver had hair and teeth of dazzling luminosity. But he wasn’t going my way, so he dropped me 400m up the road, at a better spot for catching the 70km-an-hour glance of drivers’ eyes.

The second lift was with a music historian who was hard of hearing. He lived a few kilometres beyond my hometown, so was happy to drop me at the pub and talk about the demise of gypsy music in post-communist Romania.

The last time I hitchhiked wasn’t when I was a fiscally strapped backpacker or an adventure-hungry teenager. It was late last year and I was just trying to get home on a day when the public-transport system was sabotaged by public-holiday throngs complete with vomit and fascinators.

Living on the fragile fringe of a commuter network means that, if a train doesn’t meet a bus, I can be stuck for hours at a charmless, cold interchange. This is why I opt for the well-known risk, taking to the highway with a finger pointed at the bitumen.

As a mode of transport, hitchhiking in Australia had always stumbled along as an unreliable, yet somehow romantic, option. Then Ivan Milat was convicted of killing seven backpackers, and hitching was never the same again. If his name isn’t mentioned, it is certainly in the minds of both hitcher and hitchee. The tragedy of Milat’s crimes cannot be overstated, but another tragedy is that, due to crimes carried out decades ago, hitching’s potential may never be realised. In Australia today, every city has a widening blanket of suburbs, but public transport options are feeble at best. It’s no wonder the arterials – the M3s, the tollways, the ring roads, the distributors – are often jammed by cars carrying just one person who pokes their vehicle into the pack and grinds their way to work. And back.

In the American states surrounding Washington DC, hitching has shifted from the realm of vagabonds to that of commuters. During peak hour, they line up at designated pick-up points, destinations are voiced, cars are filled and destinations (general drop-off points) are reached. Apart from helping out, the driver benefits by accessing the transit lanes (for more than one passenger). There are some rules: no one talks beyond ‘please’ and ‘thanks’, no food, no fuss. They don’t call it hitching; it’s ‘slugging’.

In Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, hitchhiking has become a vocation, with teenagers riding the freeways as ‘professional passengers’, so that solo drivers can take advantage of the two-or-more passenger transit lanes and avoid the city’s asphyxiating gridlock. The teenagers travel up and down the highways, essentially paid to hitchhike.

But in Australia the culture of hitching has not evolved, and remains the domain of adventure-seeking, time-rich, cash-poor, gap-year Swedes. The speed-limit sign on the fringes of Marla, South Australia, is scratched with the origin and waiting time of many patient hitchers. They wait for days before being picked up, or give up and jump on a bus.

Apart from the split-second, ‘is he/she a nutter?’ character-profiling drivers need to make when considering picking up a hitcher, the problem in Australia is that distances are so huge you could be stuck with someone for hours; between, say, Marla and Mataranka. But what might happen if the leap were made, as it was in parts of the US, and hitching found legitimacy – especially during commuting hours, between commercial hubs on city fringes and designated drop-off points? Traffic volume might be lightened, fuel consumption reduced and a sense of community fostered.

The risk of assault could never be eradicated, and female hitchers have always been considered more at risk, but new technologies could come to our aid: numberplates could be texted as part of the pick-up process and perhaps an app could be created to log journeys, drivers and passengers.

Perhaps some spin is required: the word ‘hitching’ has too much baggage to be picked up; ‘slugging’ was originally a derogatory term and ‘car pooling’ sounds like it was created by committee. What about ‘car-muting’?

Hitchhiking is never the first option, it is never the only option (from where I wait, a bus will pass every 90 minutes or so), but it is an option that has always got me the last 20km home – with cars full of kids, commuting carpenters, restaurateurs, small-business proprietors, stoners, a friend’s mum and one-armed bushfire survivors. These experiences turn a commute into a journey.

Patrick Witton is The Big Issue’s contributing editor.