Gridlock Guy: Meditating on “good traffic”

The John Lewis mural in the Sweet Auburn District of Downtown Atlanta on Monday, July 27th, 2020. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter.
The John Lewis mural in the Sweet Auburn District of Downtown Atlanta on Monday, July 27th, 2020. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter.

As this is being typed, many are gathering at Ebenezer Baptist Church to honor the late civil rights hero and longtime congressman John Lewis. Lewis’ most famous phrase was “good trouble,” which essentially refers to the type of civil disobedience and protest that Lewis and many who joined him in the struggle for equal rights deployed.

This is the kind of trouble that doesn’t inflict harm like rioting and looting does. It’s the kind of disruption that may make those in the status quo uncomfortable, but the end result is good. And good trouble is also a philosophy of finding positivity in a seemingly negative moment.

This may seem trite, but “good trouble” got me thinking about “good traffic.” As I thought harder about the phrase, I first had to correlate it with “good trouble.” In the past, I have complained profusely about protesters blocking roads. A peaceful protest loses standing with those not involved when they get stuck in traffic because of it. As time has worn on, my view has moderated slightly. A little inconvenience draws light to an issue or maybe draws in someone who had ignored the issue once before. Good traffic. Good trouble.

When good trouble turns into a dangerous proposition for the protesters or surrounding motorists, it becomes bad trouble. Venturing onto and blocking interstates may create a spectacle, but the danger level and the amount of inconvenience both outweigh the good of the cause.

Good traffic also can have nothing to do with activism. Sitting in delays makes the trips to and from work and school longer, but it also allowed for certain routines. Traffic jams prompt people to listen to their favorite radio stations (cough-95.5 WSB-cough), podcasts, or audiobooks. The delays can create times alone to meditate, pray, and gather thoughts. Or they can create appointments to, say, call a parent.

All of those tasks can be done at home, of course. But driving (or sitting in) a car limits our tasks. If we’re sleeping later, we may have less time to make that call to our loved ones. The distractions big and small at home can leave us less disciplined to participate in our other habits. Shortening the daily commute has far more benefits, but there were some benefits of sitting in the slow stuff of which the pandemic has robbed many people.

Traffic jams can be good just because they create more opportunities to do good. If the flow is moving slowly, a driver may be more likely to stop and help a stranded motorist. Crawling gridlock offers chances for someone to be courteous and allow someone else in their lane — a deed that is small, but is good nonetheless. Darkness makes lights brighter. Sometimes bad has to exist to allow in the good. Good trouble. Good traffic.

The mere existence of traffic is also good in an entirely different way. Back in the good ol’ days — March — when the economy was roaring and the pandemic was barely ashore in the U.S., traffic was jammed. People were at work, school, and play. Far fewer people were underemployed. Our society was clueless to the radical shifts the next months would bring.

Roads were ghost towns in the early weeks of the pandemic, but traffic flow started becoming more regular in the month of May and has returned to close to the old normal in many rural areas. Afternoon traffic in Atlanta has also come close to the pre-COVID-19 levels. And while those delays are again annoying, they also are encouraging that some semblance of normal exists again. Good trouble. Good traffic.

For someone to fight as long and as hard as Representative Lewis did, they have to find the positives amidst the trying times. When the police concussed Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, the demonstrators realized that being attacked while non-violently protesting could bring their story to a national audience. Having far flung support would move the needle for the voting rights cause. It did. And while Atlantans should never just settle for gridlock when chances arise to alleviate it, we can also find the good wrapped within it. Thank you, John Lewis, for living the example of the Apostle Paul: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” (Romans 5:3-4). Good trouble. Good traffic.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.