ChurchETHOS

A Theology of Traffic

Posted in christian thought, environment by Nathan Creitz on July 9, 2008

Boston is arguably one of the worst cities in which to drive in America. As a result, I fit in quite well. I regard myself as a safe, conscientious, but yet aggressive driver. I use my defensive driving skills as offense when navigating the roads and highways in and around Boston and I’m not alone. When someone else models bad road behavior I realize that he is the one contributing to the problem, but I think it’s okay when I do it. But is that the sort of behavior that I should contribute to as a follower of Jesus?

William Beaty is an electrical engineer that has done some experimentation with traffic patterns and he has some interesting things to say. His experiments illustrate what should probably be common sense to all of us, but I want to describe his experiment and then show the implications for Christian discipleship and kindness.

Bumper-to-Buffer
Beaty describes how he was in stop-and-go traffic one day and everyone ahead of him was rushing ahead to close the gap so that no one else could cut in front of them, jockeying for every advantage possible. Beaty decided to leave a large buffer in front of him and try and maintain the average speed of the traffic (about 35mph). In other words, the people in front of him were zooming ahead at about 55mph, only to have to slam on their brakes and slow to about 15mph or come to a complete stop (thereby wasting gas, converting it into heat rather than forward motion).

Because Beaty was maintaining his average speed of 35mph, he was saving gas and breaking the ubiquitous stop-and-go traffic waves that were occurring ahead of him. At one point, on a long stretch of road, Beaty looked behind him and saw that his behavior was eliminating the stop-and-go pattern that was happening in front of him. He had made the difference. Since his speed was consistent, the others behind him were “forced” to drive at a consistent speed of about 35mph. The savings in aggravation and in fuel costs are incalculable for that many people who were positively influenced by Beaty’s behavior.

I’m not always the model of behavior on the road, but I’ve done this plenty of times before just out of my own personal desire to break the pattern of stop-and-go traffic. I would try and coast to the front and accelerate slowly to try and maintain the average speed never knowing that this might actually be helping people other than myself. I never considered that people behind me were “following” me (literally, but not intentionally) and that I could erase a small bit of their economic and emotional woes.

Traffic Patterns
Beaty’s experiments in traffic serve to highlight the need to be courteous on the road, but it also has larger implications for those of us who desire to “follow” Jesus on the “road”. Beaty says, “My single tiny car had erased miles and miles of stop-and-go traffic” and “A single solitary driver, if they stop ‘competing’ and instead adopt some unusual driving habits, can actually wipe away some of the frustrating traffic patterns on a highway.” It’s true that people are following us. The cars that are following behind us on the road didn’t make a conscious decision to follow us. They are simply behind us. They don’t consider the car ahead of them to be the leader. However, it’s amazing what kind of impact the car ahead can make by simply being cautious and courteous and respectful to the cars that are ahead, beside, and behind them.

People are following us too, whether on the road or in life, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and our patterns of behavior can either calm or cajole them. Our patterns of behavior can either bring peace and joy, or enmity and strife. Beaty’s traffic experiment once again illustrates why followers of Jesus should be leading the way in improving our culture and God’s creation. Beaty’s behavior caused others to arrive at their destination a little more calm and peaceful, with a little more gas in their tank, and a little more money in their pocket. A Christ follower should have the same sort of impact every single day. I might not be able to share the message of Jesus with someone every single day, but my actions should improve the environment, spread peace to those ahead, beside, and behind me, and bring a smile to people’s faces. This is Christian discipleship. Some Christians try and slam on the brakes with boycotts and legislation against the things of which they disapprove. Meanwhile, the culture is speeding ahead trying to break new ground with immorality and selfishness. The true Christian should consistently set the pace with his or her love, respect, kindness, and service to others. We need to accept that there are some people “ahead” of us that will never be impacted by our behavior. Instead, our focus should be on those who are “behind” us that we can help economically, emotionally, and spiritually by living a life consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

What is your traffic pattern? How are you positively impacting culture and creation for the glory of God? If you are not a follower of Jesus, would you say the Christians you have personally known have contributed to or detracted from society? In what way?

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3 Responses

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  1. Disciple of Christ said, on July 9, 2008 at 1.31 pm

    Like your article.Saw myself in it. I am one of those get out of my way drivers. I know the traffic ahead is not those that are the problem It’s all of us. Our suburban mentality and hurry up and wait attitudes. I like the metaphor of us as christians We do need to act more like we really are christians. Especially in public and the mess on the freeway. Thanks again for reminding me.
    bill ziegler

  2. Larry Temple said, on July 10, 2008 at 6.44 pm

    Nathan,

    We don’t have many these same problems in Chicagoland. Most of these problems are neutralized because the traffic is so bad all are forced crawl at 5 mph for miles and miles… (and sometimes for hours and hours) The daily commute is more often than not absolutely brutal…

    BTW I work at a well known evangelical seminary and all the students east & west alike hate Chicagoland traffic…

    That is why I moved tho the more rural suburbs – because of the traffic! (and the cost of housing too). We also don’t have these problems because most of the roads are one lane! Plus the folks are generally thoughtful and nice in these areas. When I moved out here 10 years ago I found it strange that everyday folks walking down the street (folks you don’t even know) will wave Hi to you – just to say Hi…

    Lar

  3. Omar Acosta said, on July 11, 2008 at 1.43 am

    Interesting stuff, I will even go further and recommend you make “explicit” your sustainable behavior, if you could make visible in your car a symbol or message that communicate to the other drivers that you are following some “sustanaible principles”, and this can be followed by an awareness campaign you can have more success.

    This kind of campaigns can be developed at local level, and the cost is not too much.

    Other issue will be include the social norms in the regulation, activating the “reaction” of others to sustainable or unsustainable behavior, a simple smiley can make the job without violence.

    If you reach the sufficient amount of people to do the same things(altruists), the strong reciprocators (the most of the people) will follow, just some egoists will keep doing the same, but for them you will have a sad smiley or the oil prices…. they will be convinced soon.


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