Have you ever thought about the economic, ecologic and human impact of getting rides for free? Is hitchhiking actually unethical -for privileged travelers?
I recently read an article about this exact issue (which seems to have been taken down since, but I’ll link it in case) . Seeing the title, I was super excited . This is exactly the type of articles I want to see more of- the reason I started this blog. I was vaguely disappointed. I mean, the points were valid, and there was room for reflection, but the article was very one-sided and shallow, in my very biased opinion as a hitchhiker claiming ethical travelling. I already wanted to write this article, but this pushed it on top of the to-do list. Let’s get do it.
Now, this is one of the first reasons I thought hitchhiking would be a better way to travel: reducing my impact on the planet. The idea is, by using cars already on the road, going that way, I can have a carbon foot print of basically 0, as whether or not I take the ride, the car would have done that trajectory. Now, comes the argument of the added weight. By simply being in the car, with my bag, I add weight to the vehicle, which adds to its gas consumption and, in turn, carbon emission. Let’s do the math.
According to my research (and MIT’S), reducing a vehicle’s weight by 100 kg could decrease fuel consumption by about 0.3 L/100 km for cars and about 0.4 L/100 km for light trucks. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Energy reports that every additional 100 pounds placed in a car reduces the vehicle’s fuel efficiency by up to 2 percent (read the articles here and here).
In other words, although you do increase the car’s footprint, that increase is quite negligeable, and (to put it simply) 98% less than if you took your own car.
One of the arguments of the article was that hitching a ride was selfish as you carelessly add extra costs to the driver. According to the same study by MIT, 100 kg of added weight will convert, in average, in a .33$ increase, per 100 km. Although this is based in Canada, and gas prices and fuel efficiency vary greatly, we can agree that the economical strain you are putting on your car host can easily be outweighed by carrying chocolates to share or paying for the toll fees.
However, would it be better to pay for a bus, contributing to the local economy (depending on the type of bus), and promoting an initiative which is relatively green, that is public transportation? I say relatively green, as it still relies on gas, but aims at reducing the amount of cars on the road (and therefore gas and carbon emission), and offer more affordable solutions for locals.
On the other side, touristic buses are infusing money to attract tourist rather than benefit the local economy, creating a dependence to this type of income, while building the gap between locals and foreigners, locals never being able to afford such prices. In my opinion, I’d rather share whatever food I have with my driver, try to buy them a coffee (when they accept, which is very rare in my experience) and occasionally offer money, when it feels appropriate.
For me, contributing to the local economy is essential, outside of the tourist industry. I’d rather spend more money on buying local olive oil, going to the café all the locals goes or going to the bakery shop to buy bread, rather than the pre-packaged alternative. This being said, I completely agree with taking the small local bus, costing 50 cents, which connects small villages to bigger cities so locals can do their groceries and have access to bigger infrastructures.
Now, that’s my favorite category. As you can read proficiently in the ‘’Why hitchhiking’’ article, I am completely convinced that hitchhiking can have amazing impacts on people. It creates connections, a space and time to share, interact, question ourselves and each other and it gives us hope that humans can be good to each other. How beautiful.
It’s a great way to learn about the culture, outside of stereotypes and with a wide range of people (although limited to people in cars, and who stop for hitchhikers). Sometimes, just answering their questions about Canada, travelling and leaving them with a contact if they start travelling, is the most valuable thing you could give them. Why? It’s something they just couldn’t have access to any other way. Yeah, they could google it. Find forums, use couchsurfing, etc. But meeting someone who travels is much more inspiring than reading about it. Seeing what you can do on such small amounts seems much more real than just hearing stories of a friend of a friend. Meeting somebody from the foreign country you might want to visit makes it much more friendly and accessible. And that goes both ways.
But then, isn’t it damageable to meet young travellers ‘’living the dream’’, while your passport barely allows you to go anywhere? When your currency loses all value when it comes to going abroad? As Canadians, we are extremely privileged when it comes to travelling, simply because we were born in the ‘’right’’ place (as far as politics go). That’s something we gratefully recognize, but it doesn’t change the facts. As we exist, and travel, we are living proofs, and reminders, of our privileges –and other people’s oppressions. This can certainly foster negative feelings, and this is another reason why I can’t really get mad at people trying to take advantage of tourists. They’re just trying to make the best of their situation, and seeing people who have it so much easier than you can only push you to try to take your part.
This being said, we’ve mostly had good reactions to the way we travel, locals putting us in different categories than the usual tourists (although debatable, as criticized by India Harris here). We’ve been told we were ‘’the ones living the life, doing it right,’’ by a Moroccan as we were camping on the beach in Taghazout, grateful we weren’t ‘’hotel tourists’’. ‘’We call you Bobocool in Sénégal,’’ said another man. ‘’You, I won’t try to sell you something, I’ll talk with you,’’ he said, as he was showing us a good spot to put our tent for free.
People often say, as they refuse whatever I’m trying to offer or as I thank them profusely: ‘’Well, you would do the same in your country.’’ Or they tell me I can give them the favor back if they come to Canada, knowing fully well this is highly unlikely. What they’re saying, between the lines, is I help you, you help them. I’ve realized many poorer countries (in the sense that their currency is much lower than most western countries), from where it’s harder to travel, have something invaluable we lost: a sense of community. Often, they help us and refuse any individual benefit from it, simply wishing for us to help out their brothers (in the very broad sense of the word) in need. They simply offer their generosity, hoping it will spill over, from us, to other people. Now, that’s a domino effect I want to play a part in.
When it comes to deciding if something is ethical, you need to carefully weigh the good and the bad, about multiple aspects of the issue. Although I might have went overboard with some considerations, and I might not have been able to overcome my positive bias towards hitchhiking, I still feel like the benefits of hitchhiking overcome the potential negative impacts, when it is done right.
What do I mean by done right? I mean, I don’t believe there is only one way to do it ‘’right’’. There can be many motivations to hitchhike. Of course, if the only purpose is selfish (to avoid paying), nothing is given back to the community or drivers who offer a ride (in terms of conversation, presence, human contact and/or whatever you can offer) and it is done in an attitude of taking for granted bordering on lack of respect, I wouldn’t put hitchhiking on such a pedestal. Still, I believe that hitchhiking is the greenest alternative when it comes to vehicles, and that the money saved can be reinvested in the local economy in better ways. Ideally, I believe hitchhiking can create contacts and exchanges that go beyond money, and giving back can have a much wider and deeper meaning.