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Long IslandTransportation

Schools reopenings, low LIRR ridership factors in traffic returning to Island

Empty streets are a thing of the past on Long Island. While the pandemic kept many cars off the roads, drivers say the traffic has returned — and state data backs that up. Newsday's Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Newsday / Cecilia Dowd; Howard Schnapp; File footage

When the coronavirus pandemic was at its peak in New York this past spring, Barry Eisner’s East Meadow car repair shop was struggling.

The steady stream of oil changes, tire rotations and other maintenance jobs that had kept Neighbors Automotive afloat since Eisner opened in 1985 slowed to a trickle. Stay-at-home orders issued by New York State were keeping Long Islanders off the roads, and their cars out of Eisner's shop.

"We kept working," Eisner said on a recent morning. "But there were some terrible days in April."

Those days are over.

After dropping by half in the spring, traffic congestion is back on Long Island, nearing levels not seen since before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the stay-at-home mandate in March. About 77,000 vehicles traveled westbound on a heavily trafficked stretch of the Southern State Parkway on a Thursday in October — only 3,000 fewer than the number on a Thursday in February, state data show. On a Thursday in April, the number was 47,000.

2020 Long Island traffic

The chart shows westbound traffic on the LIE from exit 34 to 33, on the Northern State from exit 40 to 39, and on the Southern State from exit 22 to 21, on specified dates of each month. Source: New York State Department of Transportation

Transit experts, business owners and drivers attributed the return of motorists to the easing of pandemic restrictions, some schools and businesses reopening, an influx of new residents moving from New York City, and low ridership on the Long Island Rail Road.

Before the pandemic, traffic created backups that was costing the region close to $2 billion annually in lost time and fuel, according to a recent traffic study. Given the projected rise in Long Island's population, experts believe traffic will get worse in the months and years to come.

In an analysis of traffic and mobility data from 2019 to present, Newsday found:

  • Weekday traffic in recent months on the Long Island Expressway and Northern State and Southern State parkways was about 9% below its February level, according to New York State Department of Transportation data. The data shows estimated westbound traffic volumes on a stretch of each highway on one weekday each month since February. In March, traffic was half what it had been in February.
  • Daily workplace visits on Long Island are down 20% to 30% from early 2020, according to Google Mobility Reports. In April, they were down as much as 64%.
  • Crossings on Metropolitan Transportation Authority bridges and tunnels, including the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, were up 9% in September compared to the same month last year. In April, they were down 65%.
  • Drivers on Long Island received 64% fewer traffic tickets in June than in the same month last year, according to preliminary data from the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research in Albany. In April, they received 89% fewer.

Back to business

The return of motorists is welcome news to businesses like Eisner’s, but less so to the drivers who had gotten used to open roads and easy commutes. While commerce at Neighbors Automotive hasn’t quite reached its pre-pandemic pace, Eisner said it’s close.

"There are days when it’s screaming busy," he said.

The state deemed car repair shops essential businesses and allowed them to operate throughout the pandemic.

While car travel has returned, public transit has not.

LIRR data shows ridership was 70% lower in September than in the same month last year. That’s better than the 97% reduction in April, but not enough to solve the massive revenue shortfall facing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR's parent agency.

Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors’ Association, attributed this to lingering concerns over whether crowded trains put passengers at risk of contracting COVID-19.

"At this point, people are staying home; they’re reluctant to travel," Herbst said. "But when they do travel, they’re going to use automobiles because they feel more safe."

The LIRR said it is taking steps to prevent the coronavirus from spreading on trains, including requiring masks, disinfecting stations and trains frequently, and allowing riders to monitor crowding on trains through a mobile app.

"If you’re going to be working from home, there’s going to be more local trips."

Marc Herbst, Long Island Contractors’ Association

Herbst suggested the rise in traffic also might reflect an increase in short local trips, not long commutes, as Long Islanders working from home may have more time to use their cars.

"If you’re going to be working from home, there’s going to be more local trips," he said.

School reopenings on the Island also might be playing a role. That’s what Farrukh Alhabibi, the manager of a North Bellmore gas station, credits with the brisk activity at his pumps recently. Monthly gas sales dropped from around $200,000 to $110,000 in April, he said, but have almost returned to normal.

"School is open," Alhabibi explained, pointing toward two nearby schools whose parents tank up at his station. "It’s a big difference."

“We've gotten an infusion of folks from Manhattan. They're driving around.”

Eric Alexander, Vision Long Island

Alhabibi added that some of his regulars recently told him they are moving because they can no longer afford to live on Long Island. But he said he’s also observed an influx of new customers who told him they moved to Long Island from New York City to save money.

Eric Alexander, director of the Northport-based regional planning group Vision Long Island, echoed what Alhabibi said.

"We've gotten an infusion of folks from Manhattan," he said. "They're driving around."

In March, the U.S. Postal Service processed 3,500 change-of-address requests from New York City households or businesses to Long Island, compared to fewer than 50 last March, Newsday has reported.

Future traffic trends uncertain

While cars and trucks are a major cause of air pollution, officials from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said it's too soon to attribute any recent fluctuations in local air quality to the fall and rise of traffic.

What the return of motorists means for the future of travel on Long Island remains to be seen, experts said.

“If people don’t come back to public transit, there’ll be more driving ... more congestion than ever before."

Jeff Zupan, Regional Plan Association

Jeff Zupan, a transportation planner at the Regional Plan Association, said the disparity between car traffic and public transit use bodes poorly for the future of mobility in the region.

"If people don’t come back to public transit, there’ll be more driving than ever before, and then there’ll be more congestion than ever before," he said. "That’s a bad recipe for the New York region, and for Long Island as well."

Alexander suggested ridership will rebound once more offices in New York City reopen and fewer Long Islanders work from home.

Unless working from home remains common even after the pandemic. Eisner suspects that may happen, with implications for his mechanic shop going forward.

"I don’t ever think it’s going to be what it was," he said of his business. "It’s going to be a different commute."

Such is the case for Denise Barilli, a medical sales representative from Merrick who previously spent five to six hours a day driving to hospitals in the region.

"It was brutal with traffic," she said at a car wash in Merrick on a recent afternoon, while a worker patted dry her sport utility vehicle.

Now she's in her car for work about once a week.

"Most of our meetings are all virtual," she said.

One way or another, Herbst said traffic on Long Island likely will get worse.

"With or without COVID, there’s going to be an increase in traffic," he said, noting projections that the region’s population will increase. "Long term, we’ve got issues to deal with."

Snapshots of Long Island traffic

The following are measurements of Long Island traffic on the specified dates in 2020 for vehicles moving westbound between those exits. The first date reflects the level of normal traffic before the economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus, while the second date captures data amid the shutdown, and the third date reflects traffic levels after the state's reopening phases were completed.

Long Island Expressway — exits 34 to 33

  • On Feb. 27: 101,204 vehicles
  • On April 23: 69,907 vehicles
  • On Oct. 15: 87,425 vehicles

Northern State Parkway — exits 40 to 39

  • On Feb. 27: 41,076 vehicles
  • On April 23: 17,315 vehicles
  • On Oct. 15: 37,631 vehicles

Southern State Parkway — exits 22 to 21

  • On Feb. 27: 80,317 vehicles
  • On April 23: 46,524 vehicles
  • On Oct. 15: 77,131 vehicles

SOURCE: New York State Department of Transportation

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