Lawrence city commissioners are being asked to give a thumbs up to a unique form of hitchhiking.
A new nonprofit group is asking commissioners to rewrite part of the city's traffic code to make it legal for people to join a sort of hitchhiking network that supporters hope will become a reliable and convenient form of public transportation.
"We think it not only is going to be a great way to get people to where they need to be, but also a great way to build trust, community connectedness, and neighborliness," said Jenny O'Brien, director and founder of the Lawrence OnBoard program.
O'Brien and a group of about 20 volunteers envision riders and drivers signing up to be part of the network. Riders would be given a folding whiteboard bearing the Lawrence OnBoard logo. The hitchhiker would write his or her destination on the whiteboard and pick a safe place to stand along a city street. Then it's just a matter of waiting for a kind motorist to stop and offer a ride.
O'Brien said she knows the concept works because she frequently uses it to get from her rural Jefferson County home to her office near downtown Lawrence.
"The third car that came by today took me into town, and we had a nice chat along the way," O'Brien said.
City commissioners at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday will consider exempting the city from part of the state's traffic code that makes it illegal to stand along a street for the purposes of soliciting a ride. Sgt. Trent McKinley, a spokesman for the Lawrence Police Department, said the department has expressed some concerns about the proposal. He said vehicles suddenly stopping along busy city streets to pick up a hitchhiker could create traffic problems. McKinley said the concept of hitchhiking also goes against one of the common pieces of safety advice the department offers.
"We wouldn't suggest people taking a ride with people they don't know," McKinley said.
O'Brien said she hopes to address safety concerns by having people who sign up for the program submit to a background check. The program also would recommend that hitchhikers send a text to the main office of Lawrence OnBoard that includes the license plate or membership number of the motorist they are riding with.
The program, however, will allow motorists who haven't undergone a background check to pick up hitchhikers. O'Brien said users of the program will have to use common sense.
"But the bad reputation hitchhiking got in the 1970s was way overblown, I think," said O'Brien, who said her personal rules include not accepting a ride at night or entering a car that has two or more men in it.
O'Brien said that if commissioners approve the traffic ordinance change, it likely still would be six months to a year before a program was operational.