Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: more than 90 minutes

  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche - if at great geographic variance
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B

From freighthopping to hitchhiking

Image: Wikimedia Commons / public domain

A young Ernest Hemingway (17 in 1916), freight-hopping to get to Walloon Lake.

Hitchhiking has a long tradition in the U.S. Its direct ancestor was freighthopping. After the Civil War, if you were looking for work but without your own means of transportation, you'd hop on freight trains to travel long distances.

By 1911, the ranks of these hobos (1) had swelled to an estimated 700,000 – or about 0.75% of the entire U.S. population at the time.

While lots of people kept riding the rails throughout the 20th century (2), the rise of the automobile provided a much safer and more flexible means of hitching rides to faraway destinations.

Popular (and patriotic)

Hitchhiking (3) really took off after 1929, when the Depression both limited people's options to buy their own cars and increased their need to move around to find work. Under the New Deal, the US Government even set up a Transient Bureau that helped both hobos and hitchhikers.

Hitchhiking entered the national consciousness, portrayed in popular books (John Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath') and films ('It Happened One Night', starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert).

By one estimate in 1937, at least one adult American male in 10 had hitched a ride at least once. A Gallup poll conducted during World War II, when fuel-rationing and car shortages were keeping hitching popular (and patriotic), indicated that nearly half of all Americans had picked up a hitchhiker.

Friendly traveller or vicious murderer?

Image: FBI / public domain

Two FBI posters, signed by America's anti-hitchhiker-in-chief, J. Edgar Hoover.

However, there were problems with hitchhiking almost from the start. Early on, public opinion swung against aggressive hitchhikers, sometimes standing in the middle of the road, practically "demanding a ride". Reports of crimes - real or otherwise - committed by hitchhikers predisposed the public and the authorities against it.

After WWII, laws and law enforcement further discouraged the practice, as exemplified by these FBI posters, warning drivers against hitchhikers: they could be "a happy vacationer or an escaping criminal – a pleasant companion or a sex maniac – a friendly traveller or a vicious murderer".

In the 1970s and 1980s, a slew of highly publicised crimes involving hitchhikers (to name just one: the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders, 1972-73) – and a few movies playing on the fears they generated (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974; The Hitcher, 1987) – helped end its heyday.

Unsuited to hitchhiking

Image: U.S. Department of Transportation / public domain

The Interstate Highway System in 1976

Add to that the generalised sentiment nowadays that 'stranger' equals 'danger', and the demise of hitchhiking seems logical. From the 1920s right up to the 1980s, thumbing a ride was a fairly common way to get around. These days, it's the option of last resort.

But perhaps the main reasons for hitchhiking's decline have less to do with moral panic, more with fundamental changes in infrastructure. For one, there's the post-war rise of the Interstate Highway System: bigger, faster roads that are unsuited to hitchhiking.

The biggest underlying factor may be the rise of car ownership: the percentage of US households without a car has steadily declined, from about 50% in 1941 to less than 10% today (4). If you have a car, you don't need to hitch a ride.

Rated for hitchability

Image: Hitchwiki

User-based tips and tricks on how to hitch a ride throughout Europe (and the rest of the world)

If you've never stuck out your thumb to get somewhere, nor picked up someone who did, you're now part of the overwhelming majority. Nevertheless, like vinyl, hitchhiking has survived the predictions of its demise and occupies a small but thriving niche.

There's an entire wiki dedicated to the practice, including a map detailing hitchhiking spots around the world, rating each for 'hitchability' and providing a user-generated average waiting time for each spot.

Based on that information, Abel Sulyok has produced this map, showing average waiting times across Europe as experienced by hitchhikers themselves. The map provides a curious overview of the continent's hitchhiking landscape, indicating where it's easier to hitch a ride, and where your thumb is going to be sore before you're picked up.

Hitchhiking heat map

Image: Abel Sulyok

Hitchhiking success (or failure) doesn't just depend on your technique or appearance, also on your location.

In areas coloured darkest green, you're off the street in 10 minutes or less. Lightest green: half an hour. Things turn yellowy in areas where you have to wait up to an hour and change to red for times up to 90 minutes. If it's more, you're in a deep burgundy.

A few observations:
  • Some countries seem more hitchhiker-friendly than others. According to this map, you'll have most luck sticking out your thumb in Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Albania and Romania – all mainly light green.
  • In-between countries include the UK, France, Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey (among others).
  • Worst countries to hitchhike, at least according to this map: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Austria, Sweden.
And, more specifically:
  • Border areas seem prone to hitchhiking problems, although curiously often just in one direction. Check the Russian-Belarus border, or the ones between Bosnia and Serbia, Greece and Turkey, or Austria and all points south.
  • Urban rides can be more difficult to hitch; see the 'hot spots' covering Paris, Athens, Kiev and the Liverpool/Manchester area in northwest England. In big cities, motorists can always soothe their bad conscience thinking the next car will pick up that rain-soaked stranger.
  • Red can also mean remote, as it certainly does in Scotland's furthest north, or the interior of northern Sweden and Norway.
  • Other red zones are more difficult to explain. Why the generalised aversion to autostopistas in both southern Spain and southern Italy? Why is Germany's Frisian coast so atypically hostile to hitchhikers? And what makes the southern Swedes so unamenable to helping out their non-motorised fellow travellers?
As this map shows, your hitchhiking success depends not just on your presentability, but also on where you present yourself.
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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