Long Island without a car: nearly $500 for mass transit, hourslong commutes and missed opportunities

A Suffolk bus stops in front of Home Depot in Coram in May. Riders and advocates say that spotty and unreliable bus service make it tough to live on Long Island without a car. Credit: James Carbone

Melissa Branch gets to work in Coram using the only transportation option she has: the S60 bus. The trip from Medford typically would take about 15 minutes by car, but on her worst commuting day, it has taken hours, she said.

Branch blames spotty bus service and spaced-out schedules, including an undesirably long gap between midmorning and early afternoon pickup. And forget about trying to take it on Sunday, because service doesn’t exist.

“Sometimes the bus doesn’t even come when it says it will,” Branch said, recalling one weekday where the county app showed the bus was on schedule, but it never appeared.

Branch was one of several Long Islanders who spoke to Newsday about vehicle affordability and accessibility in one of the most expensive regions in the country to live. Owning a new or used car has gotten pricier. AAA found the annual cost of owning a new car spiked 11% in 2022, to $10,728 a year. Even owning a used car, with insurance, fuel and maintenance costs, can be out of reach for many Long Islanders.


Through scores of interviews with experts and Long Island families, Newsday’s Feeling the Squeeze series gives insight into why the region is so expensive and explains the financial toll that comes with living here. From struggles to afford child care, to the burdens of high housing costs and more, these stories impact Long Islanders of all backgrounds and walks of life.

Sometimes our community needs to choose between living, eating or driving ... The price of owning a car is extreme.

—Bishop E. Edward Robinson II of the Breakthrough Chapel in Coram with Nerima Bozak of Coram, left, and Melissa Branch of Medford.

Credit: James Carbone

Bishop E. Edward Robinson II of the Breakthrough Chapel in Coram, where Branch works, said owning a car competes with housing and food.

“When you add those expenses together, sometimes our community needs to choose between living, eating or driving,” Robinson said. “The price of owning a car is extreme.”

That leaves populations lacking cars dependent on the Island’s bus network, which advocates said is lacking — particularly certain routes, such as those running between the North and South shores.

This can impact holding down a job, getting to health care appointments and accessing services.

“How are people supposed to escape poverty and make a better life for themselves if they don’t have the basic wherewithal to be able to travel across Long Island?” said Laura Harding, president of Syosset-based ERASE Racism, a nonprofit advocacy group that documents racial inequities.

Harding said many Long Islanders don't realize their neighbors may not have a way to get around.

At the Breakthrough Chapel, staffer Neriman Bozok, 29, said limited weekend and night bus service hampers her ability to get to routine places.

“I just want the buses to run normal times and to have extended hours and days … that opens up more job opportunities,” said Bozok, of Coram, who added she is hoping to get a car but noted the extra costs associated with it make it difficult.

Nearly $500 monthly for LIRR, subway

It's also not just those in the low- to moderate-income populations who lack cars. The problem extends to students and young professionals, Harding said.

“Just capturing it as a low-income conversation makes it easy for people to be dismissive,” Harding said. 

While bus fares cost $2.25 in Suffolk County and $2.75 in Nassau County, Long Island Rail Road monthly tickets can be hundreds of dollars, eating up a good portion of a paycheck.

Tyler Mortilla, 25, of Medford, said he had to quit a journalism job in Manhattan more than a year ago because he found the $492 expense of the LIRR monthly ticket plus an unlimited MetroCard prohibitive. He was making $18 an hour at a news company and couldn’t justify shelling out so much for transportation.

“The salary just wasn’t cutting it … Paying for the LIRR was like a whole bill. It didn’t make sense,” Mortilla said, adding he was unable to save any of his salary and as a result quit.

He said it was so incredibly expensive that there were times he would follow people holding the gates open at MTA stations.

Molloy University student Jonas Jacobsen said if he hadn't been lucky enough to meet a girlfriend who owns a car, he would be in a tough predicament. He said it’s been easier to get around since he splits the car with her. Taking the bus hasn’t been practical because the few times he’s used it, it took a long time to get to reach his destination, he said.

“The times I’ve tried to utilize the bus system, it’s taken me two hours to get to the point where I needed to go when I could’ve taken an Uber and it obviously would have been more expensive, but it would have taken me 10 or 20 minutes,” Jacobsen said.

For Branch, there are no alternatives.

On some days, Branch said, the bus has arrived ahead of schedule and left before her. That meant having to call her bishop, Robinson, to break the news she was going to be late. Again.

“They need better scheduling and timing … I shouldn’t have to wait a whole hour for the bus. It doesn’t even run on Sundays,” Branch said.

On a recent afternoon, the bus stop was packed with people waiting — a sight, Robinson said, that is fairly common.

"There are a lot of people that are dependent on the bus system, but there are challenges … the connectivity of the bus, the fluidity of the bus, the routes … this needs to be looked at," Robinson said.

Long Island cars have long been dominant

Long Island was built up as a bedroom community centered on cars as the predominant mode of travel, but population and job growth have shifted land and transportation needs. There are more transit-oriented developments, multi-home communities and people working in the region as opposed to going to Manhattan, according to Tiffany-Ann Taylor, vice president of transportation at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit group based in Manhattan.

And while the last couple of decades have led to increased transportation infrastructure and investments — most recently with the LIRR's Third Track, a 10-mile stretch of new track through Nassau to a second Manhattan hub, Grand Central Madison — transportation experts said there still aren’t optimal routes that run north and south. Riders said bus service in both counties is lacking and unreliable.

For public transportation to work, it needs to be dependable, affordable and efficient. But on Long Island, that’s often not the case, several riders and experts said.

This fall, Suffolk's redesigned bus routes will begin operating seven days a week with extended weekday hours from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. systemwide, according to county spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle.

"The new network will also provide significantly more equitable service for County residents, including increasing access for carless households by 53% and access for low-income residents by 60%," Guilfoyle said in an email. 

Nassau did not respond to a request for comment.

What are the transportation solutions? 

Some experts believe the solution is to invest in more bus routes and increase the frequency of service, plus add more cycling infrastructure. 

The solution is to really build a transportation network and systems, so we can have intra-Long Island travel without getting in a car.

—Lisa Tyson of Long Island Progressive Coalition

Credit: Dawn McCormick

"The solution is to really build a transportation network and systems, so we can have intra-Long Island travel without getting in a car," said Lisa Tyson, executive director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition.

The MTA has approved a fare increase of more than 4% for the average LIRR ticket, and a subway fare increase from $2.75 to $2.90. Nassau bus fares also will rise to $2.90. The new fares would take effect Aug. 20.

But Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said that "funding for the MTA is essentially critical, and if it doesn’t happen, we’re all in really deep trouble."

She believes local government also should step in to fund discount programs. 

Daglian said municipalities on Long Island should consider running a program similar to the New York City Fair Fares programs, which helps low-income city residents with a 50% discount on subway and some bus fares. In that program, qualified recipients must reach 100% of the federal poverty rate, but she believes that should be increased to 200% of the poverty level to increase eligibility. 

"It's a great program, and expanded eligibility would go a long way to help so many more people," Daglian said.

Offering free or reduced rates for low-income people as other cities recently have done also would bridge the gap and increase ridership, Tyson said.

But Taylor, with the Regional Plan Association, said transportation costs in the region appear to be about average, and it would have to be determined whether the Long Island systems can run efficiently if they decide to eliminate fares.

"So, if the system is healthy enough that it can draw from other pots of money to just support the free routes or get additional funding in general, then yes," Taylor said. "But if that's not possible, then even though it's still a good idea, what are the trade-offs?"

The original version of this story and headline misstated the amount paid by commuter Tyler Mortilla for his LIRR ticket. He paid $492 combined for the LIRR monthly ticket plus a MetroCard.

Newsday wants to hear from Long Islanders about how they face the region's cost of living. Tell us your story here.

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