An Irony of Cycles

By: Bernd Wechner
© June 1, 2002

An Irony of Cycles

An Irony of Cycles

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: June 1, 2002

Earlier this year I broached the subject of research into the field of hitch-hiking, or more accurately, the startling lack of it. It has quite rightly surprised most everyone that has actively pursued answers to simple questions on the matter. How many people hitch? Who? Where? Why? Who picks them up? How dangerous is it? How efficient is it? ... to pose just a few. Oddly enough almost no-one has ever set out to answer these questions, and yet almost everyone seems to have a view to share, an opinion to voice ... almost everyone has some experience, direct or indirect.

It would seem to be a near ubiquitous phenomenon that draws attention from almost everyone, travellers, policemen, lawyers, writers, readers, directors, musicians, poets, social pundits, all our parents even our grandmothers! From everyone that is, except the research community - the people who answer questions! They would consign us to the speculative realm of our opinionated banter on the subject, maintaining a polite, if puzzling, distance.

There is some research of course. Not much, but enough to compile an impressive array of published voices expressing their surprise at the lack of more! Most writers felt rather alone it seems.

I fully share that surprise, at the lack of academic interest this subject has aroused. I met Daniel, another hitcher, at a folk gathering one Christmas. Sharing these sentiments with him, I was equally surprised, at his lack of surprise!

    "Why, it doesn't surprise me at all that it's not been studied much," he said.

    "Why on earth not?" I quizzed, as surprised at his lack of surprise as he was at my surprise!

    "Well, it's kind of ho-hum, isn't it, like hopping on your bike to get a pint of milk from the corner store," he offered.

Now there's a thought! It is rather ho-hum, isn't it? Hitch-hiking is a rather mundane activity. It is practised ubiquitously in spite of every effort to dissuade, discourage and forbid it (at least in the West). It is practised by many without a second thought, as a simple part of day to day living. In many places where private transport is scarce it is so common, so second nature that it barely rates a mention. Something comes your way, you flag it down. All over the developing world, and all over the developed world too ... still.

But is it not the mundane that arouses much of our academic interest? Is not the simple act of riding a bicycle intently studied? Hadn't my friend, unbeknownst to him, highlighted yet another profound irony? Isn't the lack of research into hitch-hiking all the more surprising because it's so mundane, not less surprising?

Cycling, I thought, had probably been researched to death. I should be able to find hundreds of papers on cycling. We'd probably answered a thousand times over simple questions like How many people cycle? Who? Where? Why? Who sells/rents them cycles? How dangerous is it? How efficient is it? ...

It's easy enough to find out. In this day and age with electronic library facilities, a keyword search over hundreds of research journals takes minutes (I grew up in an era of wading for hours on end over annually indexed abstracts over very narrow sets of thematic journals to achieve comparable results).

... so I did. I sat down at my local library and pumped some terms into electronic indexes. The pattern became very clear ... much as I'd already intuited. There is indeed a wealth of material published on cycling and cycle safety and a negligible amount of material on hitch-hiking, none at all on its safety. Even skating and skating safety are better researched than hitch-hiking!

I whipped up some simple search criteria and used three significant indexes available at the Tasmanian State Library and University of Tasmania Library. Table 1 summarises the count of articles returned.

Table 1
Comparison of Published Articles on Various Forms of Transport
Search Criteria

(since 1984)
(Uncover Plus)
(since 1988)

(since 1976)

bicycle or cycling or bicycling




((inline or in-line) and skat*) or rollerblad* or rollerskat*












hitchhik* or hitch-hik*




As one of the most talked about and pertinent social issues surrounding hitch-hiking is it's safety, I ran the same searches including the keyword safety, yielding the even more demonstrative results presented in Table 2. Of only three articles apparently written on the safety of hitch-hiking in decades, one was on solo women drivers, one on safety issues for crews on yachts and one concerns itself with cyclists and skateboards holding onto the backs of passing trucks!

Table 2
Comparison of Published Articles on the Safety of Various Forms of Transport

Search Criteria

(since 1984)

(Uncover Plus)
(since 1988)

(since 1976)

(bicycle or cycling or bicycling) and safety




(((inline or in-line) and skat*) or rollerblad* or rollerskat*) and safety




skateboard* and safety




scooter and safety




(hitchhik* or hitch-hik*) and safety




So Daniel thought he could explain the lack of research into hitch-hiking by comparing it to the mundane activity of local cycling! Instead he's opened the door to an even more objective demonstration of the very strangeness of this lack of research - in the order of 1000 articles have appeared on cycling safety since the late 1970s (which is about on every week or two) and not a single significant piece on the safety of hitch-hiking! Hardly an explanation as to why the lack of research ...


[1] MasterFile provides full text from over 1,160 general reference, business, consumer health, general science, and multi-cultural periodicals. In addition to the full text, this database offers indexing and abstracts for over 2,330 periodicals. Full text backfiles go as far back as January of 1990, while indexing and abstract backfiles go as far back as January of 1984.

[2] Ingenta is a commercial database that has broad coverage of academic disciplines in over 20,000 serials. Index, tables of contents and some full-text from 1988 onwards.

[3] The Australian Transport Index provides up-to-date information on transport and road related material. The coverage of the Index includes road safety, transport economics, transport administration, intelligent transport systems, transport and the environment, public transport, road and airfield pavements, road design and engineering, traffic engineering and control, vehicle design and safety, and soil and rock mechanics. Index with abstracts from 1976.

[4] Hitch-hiking of course is a word that's used far more widely than chit-chatting about transport by thumb. There is the inescapable Douglas Adams, a good handful of biological and genetic theories, telecommunications and astronomical devices, and then of course the ubiquitous hitch-hiker's guide books to anything and everything not related to hitch-hiking.

Masterfile for example, returns Hitch-hiker's Guides to:

  • capital resources,
  • cybernomics,
  • DNA,
  • Elvis,
  • exchange rates,
  • file formats,
  • galleries,
  • hedge funds,
  • humanity,
  • international macroeconomic policy coordination,
  • literature,
  • medline,
  • promotional literature,
  • Science and Technology Studies,
  • science fiction,
  • SQL Server,
  • the annual conference,
  • the Australian Nursing Federation,
  • the cyber-universe,
  • the electronic highway,
  • the information superhighway,
  • the media,
  • the solar system
  • Visual Basic,
  • wireless communications,
and more ...

As a consequence I've browsed the bibliographic citations returned by Masterfile and Ingenta and categorised each of the items as either:

  1. related to hitch-hiking proper,
  2. loosely relating to hitch-hiking or possibly relating to it if not enough information is available from the citation to decide and
  3. clearly unrelated to hitch-hiking

This produces three counts, and they are reported here in that order.

Masterfile for example, returned 242 items total, of which 99 were possibly or loosely related to real hitch-hiking, of which in turn 67 were unambiguously related to hitch-hiking. For Ingenta the respective tallies were 143, 30 and 9.

Even so, the items that relate to hitch-hiking are almost exclusively stories about or by hitch-hikers or reports of crimes ... there is no research to speak of!

A similar case could of course be argued for other categories, notably cycling. Namely that many of the thousands of articles that are matched under cycling do not deal with real cycling at all. Admittedly I have not spent the time to categorise those thousands of bibliographic entries, but even if we take generously similar proportions to those uncovered for hitch-hiking, the trend remains unambiguously clear.

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