Marlane Moynagh said she enjoyed some commuting relief during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in recent months has noticed more traffic congestion.
Moynagh's normal 20-minute late afternoon drive from Floral Park to Port Washington for an exercise workout had doubled in time.
"It’s kind of a bummer. … Everyone is back out," Moynagh said, referring to commuters. "But it’s not as bad as before — it’s not bumper to bumper."
While it's unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out, more people definitely are back on Long Island roads — with traffic counts close to pre-pandemic levels, especially on the Long Island Expressway. Driving patterns on the Island also continue to morph, as flexible work routines have shifted traditional peak commuting times on heavily traveled highways.
What to know
Commuting patterns on Long Island continue to change, as new work routines have, at least temporarily, shifted traditional peak morning commutes on the Island's most-traveled highways.
Traffic is still rush-rush on the Island's parkways and only interstate.
While it’s too soon to make long-term traffic predictions, transportation experts said traffic will steadily increase.
Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at INRIX, a Kirkland, Washington-based company that analyzes data from navigation units, fleet providers, mobile apps and road sensors, said "people's travel habits have changed" because of the pandemic. He examined Long Island's driving patterns for Newsday.
"We still see a strong peak for travel on all of these roadways during the afternoon, and that is something that is consistent. They’re not exactly the same as they were two years ago, and people are going all over the place, not necessarily to downtown or commuting hubs. It’s still getting kind of ironed out," Pishue said.
On the LIE, traffic is just as heavy during the mornings and evenings in both directions as it was in 2019, before the pandemic, but motorists are traveling faster around midday, Pishue said.
It’s not surprising that morning and afternoon traffic remains strong on the LIE, considering the highway is a main route for delivery trucks, one researcher said.
"There is important truck traffic and additional delivery trips being made to people’s homes that weren’t being made a few years ago. There are also new stresses on the road from trips not being made pre-pandemic," said David Schrank, senior research scientist at Texas A&M Transportation Institute and co-author of the 2021 Urban Mobility Report.
On the Northern and Southern State parkways, there was less morning congestion from Dec. 6 to Dec. 17, 2021, compared to Dec. 2 to Dec. 13, 2019, according to INRIX data. Motorists traveling east on the Southern State at 8 a.m. whizzed by at 41 mph in December, compared with 29 mph during the same period in 2019, 41% faster, Pishue said. Westbound speeds also improved in the mornings on both parkways compared to 2019.
The afternoon and evening commutes were worse, Pishue said. On the Northern Parkway, eastbound speeds were similar to pre-COVID levels during the afternoon peak hours. Evening eastbound speeds on the Southern Parkway also were similar to 2019 levels, according to Pishue.
For Long Islanders used to zipping around local roads, traffic being close to what it was means longer commutes, timewise, from one Island location to another.
'We used to have rush hour between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., and now it’s later because more people work from home.'
-Marlane Moynagh, a manager at Tulip Bake Shop in Floral Park
Moynagh, 29, a manager at Tulip Bake Shop, a family-run business in Floral Park, said there are fewer crowds in the bakery than during the pre-pandemic morning peak.
"It’s definitely changed. We used to have rush hour between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., and now it’s later because more people work from home," Moynagh said.
Gerry Lake, 45, an early childhood nutritionist from Medford who drives 18 miles to her job in Commack, said the trek could take as long as 45 minutes.
"The local traffic is picking back up to where it was before the pandemic hit. It’s very busy. I think it’s down during the day, but during peak hours, it still takes me the same amount of time it did before the pandemic," Lake said.
Traffic counts in December on the three major thoroughfares were short of levels seen in February 2020, also pre-pandemic, state Department of Transportation data shows. State pandemic shutdowns were enacted in March 2020, bringing traffic pretty much to a standstill.
The LIE had roughly 2.3% fewer vehicles on Dec. 16, 2021, compared with Feb. 27, 2020, when 101,203 vehicles were recorded traveling between Exits 34 and 33, according to DOT data. The Southern State Parkway also experienced about a 3% reduction in congestion when comparing those days.
Pishue said that on heavily traveled roads, a 2% to 3% difference can feel like a lot.
"The next 1% of cars can add multiple percentages to travel time," he said. "If you put a car on a road that has very few cars on it, the impact is very low. If you put a car on a road that has a lot of traffic, the impact is very high … that can actually lead to big effects in terms of traffic congestion."
On the Northern State Parkway, traffic fell nearly 47% on Dec. 21, 2021, when 21,786 cars were recorded between Exits 40 and 39, compared to 41,076 on Feb. 27, 2020.
"We’re not seeing massive gridlock on the road network," Pishue said. "It’s still too early to tell what the overall impact will be, but what we’re seeing is a much more measured, gradual increase of congestion."
Shrinking workforce impacting travel?
A shrinking labor force in the region might be impacting peak travel. Theresa Wilson, of Elmont, would know — she falls in that group.
"I take traffic into consideration all the time," said Wilson, 61, who recently retired from the state. "When I retired, I thought I could go out at any time, but it’s not happening because a lot of people are working from home. You still have to allow for traffic anywhere you go."
There’s been a 4.7% drop in the region’s labor force, or 67,300 fewer workers, since pre-pandemic, said Shital Patel, a Labor Market Analyst for the state Department of Labor’s Long Island region. She added that early retirements due to the region’s older-than-average workforce and women leaving jobs to deal with child care are creating a smaller workforce.
"Prior to the pandemic in 2019, 44% of workers that reside in Nassau County and 24% of workers in Suffolk County worked off Long Island," Patel said. "This move toward workplace flexibility has eliminated the traditional 9-to-5 daily commute for a large portion of Long Island residents, which has alleviated some traffic during the peak rush hours."
Some companies remain closed to in-person workers. Henry Schein, the area’s largest company by revenue, has 1,250 employees working from home, according to Ann Marie Gothard, vice president for global corporate media relations. More than half of Henry Schein’s workforce eventually will return to its Melville office on a hybrid schedule, while the remaining employees will be either completely remote or fully in-office.
Allen Schwartz, the owner of Laurel Tailor & Dry Cleaners on Long Beach, said his 58-year-old business has experienced a sharp decrease in demand as the pandemic created a new work culture and halted many social functions.
"I know two cleaners in the neighborhood that have gone out of business. We used to clean every single day. Now I am down to three or four days a week," said Schwartz, who doubts the industry will ever see a full comeback.
Traffic locally more sporadic
Congestion on local roads has been more sporadic, fueled by jaunts to shopping malls and mom-and-pop shops, transportation officials said.
"There is also an uptick in congestion on non-freeways. We’re making a lot of trips, especially in the middle of the day when we’re working from home," Schrank said.
'I don’t think it will get any better; it will just be as trafficky as ever.'
-Jessica Dubuss, 38, of Bellerose Village, who worked from home pre-COVID-19
Jessica Dubuss, 38, of Bellerose Village, worked from home pre-COVID-19 and said she hasn’t noticed a difference in traffic patterns.
"I always thought that Long Island had traffic all day long, so I don’t know," she said. "I feel like anytime we go anywhere, we do notice traffic. I think the local roads are the same, in my opinion.
"I think it will stay the same. I don’t think it will get any better; it will just be as trafficky as ever."
Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, a smart-growth planning group, believes that as ridership on the Long Island Rail Road increases, there will be even less dependence on highway driving. There were 35 million riders on the LIRR last year, up from 30 million in 2020, but still down from 90 million riders in 2019.
"I believe traffic is either going to remain the same or get better as more people get on the railroad," Alexander said. "The train stations might get a little jammed and slowly get back to what they were pre-pandemic, but Manhattan is not geared for automobiles, so people will take the railroad. Public policy is geared toward people not driving into Manhattan."