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Mass. hitchhikers plan to get on the road

Energy concerns central to effort

NORTHAMPTON -- She's been called the Walking Quaker, an 86-year-old pacifist pedestrian who embodies much of this college town's sense of grass-roots activism and liberal politics that never escape at least the whiff of beat or hippie influence.

And as Frances Crowe and a group of like-minded residents predict a future threatened by major oil shortages, they're reviving and modifying a one-time popular mode of transportation with the hope it might help prevent an energy crisis: hitchhiking.

''When I came to Northampton in 1951, I had a station wagon and picked up all kinds of hitchhikers," Crowe said. Six years later, Jack Kerouac's ''On the Road" was published, and thousands of Americans sought to emulate the writer's cross-country hitchhiking adventures.

''Hitchhiking isn't as common as it was then," Crowe said. ''But with the price of oil going up, people might want to think about changing their habits."

Carpooling and ride-sharing certainly aren't new ideas. But Crowe's group -- which calls itself Communi-GO -- is trying to offer a more flexible transit system to college students, poor people, and anyone else who may not have a car or the desire to drive themselves throughout the Pioneer Valley, the stretch of Western Massachusetts that follows Interstate 91 between the Connecticut and Vermont borders.

''It makes sense that people are looking to hitchhike as a new way of carpooling," said Morgan Strube, a longtime hitchhiker who maintains www.digihitch.com, a hitchhiking information website. ''It's informal, and it could be pretty fun."

Strube traces the roots of hitchhiking to the turn of the last century, when he said people looking for adventure ''realized there are cars out there that will stop and give me a ride." By the 1920s, hitchhikers were mostly young job-seekers looking for cheap and easy ways to commute from rural areas into large cities, he said.

That's the basic premise behind Communi-GO. The group's idea sprang from a discussion of ''peak oil," a concept that the world's oil supply is shrinking at a rate that will never be able to satisfy growing energy demands.

''We're trying to take some concrete steps to address the problems of peak oil," said Molly Hale, one of the Communi-GO organizers.

Similar efforts have been made in the San Francisco and Washington, D.C., areas where impromptu carpooling systems have been set up along highways and heavily traveled roads.

The Pioneer Valley program is still in planning stages, and the group needs to answer questions about safety, liability, and how to screen potential drivers and riders. They figure 300 people will have to sign up before Communi-GO can, well, get up and go.

''We should keep emphasizing that this is an all-volunteer organization," Hale said at a recent planning meeting. ''People should know what they're getting into."

Participants will be issued placards identifying them as Communi-GO members. Instead of holding out a thumb to flag a ride, a hitchhiker would wave the sign. When a car pulls over, the driver would display a placard as proof of membership.

There wouldn't be any scheduled routes or pickup times, but organizers expect groups of riders and passengers will develop routines that make it easier to predict where and when a lift will come.

To enroll in the program, people would have to submit their names and addresses and fill out a form stating they have no history of violent crimes. Those who have been convicted of drunken driving would be allowed to take part as passengers, but not as drivers.

People who want to be drivers would have to give proof of insurance, registration, and a valid license.

It'll be strictly an honor system when it comes to trusting the criminal histories of riders and drivers. But Northampton Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz said having everyone's name in a database will at least give police some basic information in case of foul play.

''It's not airtight security, but what is these days?" he said. ''They're trying to form a system that is better than just picking up strangers, and from a public safety point I don't see any problems. I think it's a great idea for cutting down the number of motor vehicles on the road and for conserving energy."

While they may be motivated by a desire to reduce oil consumption, Communi-GO's founders don't deny the social benefits that can come from hitchhiking.

Crowe has since traded her station wagon in for a 1998 Toyota Corolla that she drives only once a week to a Quaker meetinghouse about 20 miles away in Leverett. The rest of her commuting is done on foot or by hitching an occasional ride.

''Cars seem very alienating to me unless you've got someone to share the ride with," she said.

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