A demonstration shows emissions from an internal combustion engine at a...

A demonstration shows emissions from an internal combustion engine at a rally Tuesday at Farmingdale State College in support of Car-Free Friday, part of an MTA effort to improve air quality and reduce traffic.

Credit: Rick Kopstein

Close to a million Long Islanders drive to work alone instead of ride sharing or taking public transportation, but more than 3,700 of them have vowed to leave their cars at home Friday.

They signed a pledge go car-free for the day, part of an MTA effort to encourage use of other modes of transportation as a way to improve air quality and cut down on traffic congestion.

Staff of high-profile Long Island employers like Woodbury-based Cameron Engineering and Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow are participating, along with workers at towns including Babylon and Huntington, and students at colleges like Stony Brook University. Some municipalities are organizing related events, like a bike parade in Babylon Village and a community ice cream parlor crawl in Port Washington.

Whether the one-day event leads to real changes in behavior among commuters is an open question. Guests at a Tuesday rally at Farmingdale State College in support of "Car-Free Friday" said in interviews they were optimistic, but considering car and truck-dominated Long Island, also acknowledged the enormity of their mission. 

“It’s more than symbolic — once you go through the effort to make a plan, it’s something you can do again,” said Mindy Germain, an organizer of the effort and program manager for Transit Solutions, a federally funded Metropolitan Transportation Authority program to reduce air pollution and traffic by increasing transit ridership. More than half of those taking the pledge said they would walk instead of drive, with smaller numbers planning to take the LIRR, carpool or another form of transportation. 

One participant, Rachael Adler, who works in health care communications and lives in Port Washington, said in a phone interview that her family already uses their cars as sparingly as possible, walking to the Long Island Rail Road station and into town to run errands. To get groceries, Adler said, they sometimes drive an electric hybrid plug-in vehicle.

“I’m doing the best I can so my kids have a future where there’s clean water and clean air for them and their kids,” she said. On Friday, Adler said, she plans to walk to her children’s high school soccer games.   

Across Long Island, where much of the built environment was shaped by the automobile, nearly a million people, or about two thirds of those 16 and older, drive to work alone, according to the U.S. Census. Smaller numbers carpool or take public transit. Even fewer walk, and the portion who bike is vanishingly small at just .1% of Suffolk County workers. 

“The numbers are small, but that also means the opportunities are great,” said Sam Schwartz, the transportation engineer better known as "Gridlock Sam Schwartz," and the former New York City traffic commissioner. Public outreach showing people how to use public transit is one powerful and relatively cheap option, Schwartz said at the rally. For example, recent surveys showed that many Long Islanders who drove to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center did not know it is located across the street from Atlantic Terminal, a hub for LIRR and subways, he said.

Cities like Los Angeles, whose car ownership rate mirror’s Nassau County, provide possible models for Long Island, he said. Widening sidewalks and narrowing roads there has helped boost the number of people who get around by walking or biking.

“These are car-oriented places and they don’t have big subway systems," Schwartz said.

For Long Island, on-demand bus service could be one of the most powerful options for people looking to go mostly or totally car-free, according to Germain and Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, a nonprofit that advocates for downtown revitalization and better planning. 

The Mini service operated by Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE Bus, allows customers to hail a ride using a mobile app and get picked up and dropped off anywhere within a service area from Lynbrook to Merrick. A similar service, Circuit, will soon link Brentwood, Suffolk County Community College, the Long Island Innovation Park at Hauppauge and two LIRR stations. 

“We need more buses and we need smaller buses,” Alexander said. “We’re missing opportunities to serve people.”

While the typical Long Islander still probably needs a car, most can reduce their reliance on the automobile, and going car-free for a day could be a valuable experiment, he said. “It’s not Car-Free Year — this is for people to just look at their lives and their transportation patterns.” 

Trump criminal trial begins … Hill Ranch sex abuse settlement … Li teachers honored Credit: Newsday

Bethpage-Grumman plume clean up ... Smithtown master plan vote ... Tax Day today ... Gooden honored

Trump criminal trial begins … Hill Ranch sex abuse settlement … Li teachers honored Credit: Newsday

Bethpage-Grumman plume clean up ... Smithtown master plan vote ... Tax Day today ... Gooden honored

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months