Theme: Passengers – Mitfahrergelegentheit

Imagine being stuck for six hours in car with a total stranger. It’s terrific. 

It´s great to stand around a car and chat while taking a break on a long trip.
It’s great to stand around a car and chat while taking a break on a long trip.

For a while I was a long-distance taxi, ferrying strangers from the middle of Europe northwards and sometimes from the north of Europe downwards. I’d get a message via an in-box on a web-board that, say, someone wanted to get from Cologne to Hamburg, or to Flensburg or to Aarhus. After some short discussions on price, (the passengers dictated as supply exceeded demand) I’d arrange to meet the passengers at an agreed point and off we’d go on a six or seven hour trip together. “Hi, I’m Richard….you must be Helen/Erich/Jonas…”

Cars aren’t that social, I feel. We might talk to family while driving but apart from this incursion into the sacred chamber of plastic and plasticised leather, there are very few other chances for strangers to get into the car and make conversation for extended 2015 Autobahn imageperiods of time. is a German website that makes it possible for people to connect with total strangers and share a trip. The obvious advantage is that you can defray the cost of a €120 trip from Cologne, to Aarhus, for example, by selling those empty seats in your car. Passengers (around 2005/2006) paid about €20 each for their seat which is more than nothing though not as much as you’d expect since a train fare for the same route can be €50-100. If I got three passengers that would mean half the cost of my trip was covered, though I usually only ever got one.

Too many cars have seats that are never, ever used.
Too many cars have seats that are never, ever used.

When I told them about it, people tended to view this arrangement, of having to spend time with strangers, as risky or unsettling. You get the same reaction when you say you share a cabin with five others on the European night trains that run from Hamburg south (it’s often a great chance to talk with very varied people).

I found car sharing made my long trips vastly more interesting as I got to meet and have unavoidable conversations with totally unexpected people. During one conversation I suddenly understood the mistake made with China when it opened up to world trade in the 70s (I’ll l explain later). I would not have had that thought if I was alone with a bar of Rittersport chocolate.

Another time I met a rock musician and we talked about synaesthesia. I have all the albums his band have released as a result (I went and bought them) and from time to time I help out with his lyrics (spelling mostly). None of the dozen times I had these temporary friends in the car did I feel anything other than interest though perhaps talking for six hours was a little more tiring than smoking a few cigars. Make that very tiring indeed.

As I mentioned previously I like it that my passengers can enjoy my car’s rear compartment; it was really nice to offer an unusual car to the passengers on these long trips. I got the feeling the car was fulfilling its role. Most of the riders really seemed to appreciate the comfortable seats of my XM and while they would have got from A to B as quickly in a Golf, I don’t think it would have been as memorable as in the XM. I like to think they all have good memories of what otherwise could have been a really boring trudge up the Autobahn.

With this in mind, I might suggest that people find a way to share their cars more. There is a lot about cars that’s quite nice: the speed and the comfort and the freedom to pack a lot of junk in the boot. But they have had a really atomising effect on society which I regret. People seldom even use their cars for long trips with friends (they have a car too). People who own cars tend to sneer at public transport because it means they might meet other people.

Yet other people, for all their faults, are mostly okay when you stop to talk to them. Some of them are great to talk to and will tell you about things you’d never otherwise have considered. And having passengers in your car for half a day means talking to them is unavoidable. You learn about them and you can learn about yourself. The three other seats in your car are meant for far more than storing jackets, crisp packets or a weekend hold-all. Wear out those rear seats.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

11 thoughts on “Theme: Passengers – Mitfahrergelegentheit”

  1. I used to be a regular user of Surprisingly, people tended to be surprised when I turned up with the XJ.
    Some of those drives have been interesting, other haven’t. The only constant annoyance was the fact that pretty much each and every time one of those who’d booked a ride didn’t turn up, which was even more regrettable as I usually could’ve sold the seat to other, possibly more dependable parties. And there also was one chap who (without having been asked to do so) estimated my car’s value at about €6.000 and asked whether it was running a diesel engine (before someone asks: no, I didn’t get my hands on a prototype running a VM Motori oil burner, and I have yet to put a BMW 3.0 biturbo diesel unit into my car).

    On the one occasion when I used as a passenger, I got to realise that a Citroen AX is not the ideal piece of long distance machinery and had to pay Deutsche Bahn to get me back to Hamburg from Cologne, as the crétin I’d booked a ride home with neither turned up nor answered his phone that night.

    All that being said, I’d still offer my free seats when I’m doing a long distance tour on my own. It’s been an enjoyable experience more often than not.

    Now what about Deng Xiao Ping’s big mistake, Richard?

  2. I very seldom go on long road trips that I can plan ahead to destinations that other people are likely to want to visit, so it’s not something I’d envisage using. Which is a pity since, as you say, it is interesting driving with strangers. Oddly enough, I was thinking about future DTW projects this morning, and I thought I might write about my time delivering cars for Hertz in my youth, during which time I met quite a lot of people . So I shall.

    And yes. The China question remains unanswered.

  3. Interesting. Is mitfahrgelegenheit really a German-only concept?
    There are actually several quite similar pages out there and the procedure has improved in the last few years (e.g. it is possible for drivers to choose paypal-payment in advance and there are automatically suggested prices per seat, depending on the distance). I use it a lot on long distance drives and the experiences are positive more often than not.

    PS: Now you know. I’m German (boohoo…).

  4. Who puts zigeuner sauce on chips? That sounds terrible to me. 🙂
    And then… maybe you like German culture more than I do. But I manage to live quite well in it, so no complaints.

  5. In the world? That’s a strong claim. The Colognians think like that. Cologne as the centre of the universe. I tend to disagree.
    But if you come visit, let me know. Always up for coffee or beer.

  6. Some say Koelners are superficial because they are outgoing. Danes are reserved but it doesn’t make them deep. I’ll choose friendly and shallow over reserved and shallow any time.
    I did get to know people, locals, in Koeln. That hasn’t happened in Denmark after 8 years.

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