Truck traffic has come barreling back at the region’s bridges and tunnels — more than even 2019 levels — and it’s contributing to congestion on Long Island roadways.
The increased number of trucks is, in part, due to the growth of e-commerce spurred under lockdown and different shipping patterns at New York City-area ports, traffic and logistics experts said.
With only three major east-west highways, Long Island always has had some of the busiest roadways in the country and jam-ups were like clockwork. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic trends have been scrambled, offering temporary relief or mounting stress at less-predictable times, according to traffic experts and data.
Along with the increased truck traffic, continued remote working options, decreased carpooling and a 25% lag in Long Island Rail Road ridership compared with 2019 have shifted the Island’s commuting hours and days.
WHAT TO KNOW
- There are more trucks at the region’s bridges and tunnels since 2019.
- Traffic on Long Island is still rebounding, but commuting patterns also have changed.
- Even with overall fewer vehicles on the LIE, there are times of the day when speeds are slower than in 2019.
“This hybrid work environment now makes traffic patterns fluctuate tremendously,” said David Schrank, senior research scientist at Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “What we don't know in the morning … on a day we're driving in or taking a train, is whether today is one of those days where everybody's going in or everybody is staying home.”
LIE total traffic volume down; speeds vary
Meanwhile, overall vehicle volumes on Long Island highways still have been below pre-pandemic levels. The Long Island Expressway had 95,062 vehicles in April, roughly 3% less than in April 2019, according to state Department of Transportation data.
The Southern State Parkway also isn’t seeing as many cars as it did in 2019. It had 56,323 cars in April, about 16% less than what it saw in 2019.
Average speeds on the LIE, Northern and Southern state parkways are similar to pre-COVID patterns, with some faster and some slower depending on the time, according to INRIX, an analytics company based in Washington, D.C., which examined traffic patterns for Newsday.
In March, speeds on the LIE were slower than 2019 from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. westbound between exits 37 and 36, but faster in April. The Southern State Parkway is showing slightly greater peak period congestion than in 2019, but less midday congestion at westbound exits 22-21.
The decline in vehicle numbers, however, doesn’t account for bulkier and slower-to-accelerate trucks that, on average, take up the space of two passenger cars.
“Daily traffic figures continue to rebound from the lows experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the number of cars on Long Island roads continues to increase,” state DOT spokesman Stephen Canzoneri said in a statement.
Bridge and tunnel crossings up
Data from the region's bridges and tunnels shows congestion is up.
The Port Authority’s four bridges and two tunnels saw truck crossings surge 15% in the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2019. Car volumes also jumped 3% during that period.
Truck traffic also was up at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s seven bridges and two tunnels. From January through March, there was a nearly 4% increase in truck traffic and a 2% increase in the number of cars since the same period in 2019.
“While car traffic is pretty close to what it was pre-pandemic, truck traffic is higher,” said Sam Schwartz, a former New York City traffic commissioner and founder of Sam Schwartz Engineering firm. "People are experiencing worse traffic than ever."
Impacts to cargo shipping since the pandemic also likely have required more trucks, according to Ronald Tabbitas, committee member of professional development at the Association for Supply Chain Management, Long Island chapter.
During the first quarter of the year, NYC-area shipping ports handled similar amounts of cargo as in 2019, but he believes that “ships coming in are smaller and carry less containers,” and more trucking is required to move the cargo.
New York City is one of the world’s most congested metro areas, according to a 2022 score card by INRIX, the analytics company. And it’s not just about the gridlock — traffic brings noise, smog and added costs. INRIX estimated that NYC drivers lost 117 hours in delays last year, and it cost them on average $1,976.
Perception of traffic matters
Some experts said traffic also might be a matter of perception as drivers adjusted to new conditions.
"The 'feeling' of more traffic in some areas may be due to a combination of having gotten used to less traffic during the pandemic and increased highway construction since," Michael Shenoda, an assistant professor of civil engineering technology at Farmingdale State College, said in an email.
Each neighborhood and road is impacted differently, according to Schrank.
Some drivers may experience considerable delays Tuesdays through Thursdays and lighter flows on Mondays, which nationally remain a less-traveled day, according to Schrank.
AAA Northeast spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr. said he has experienced the scrambled patterns firsthand.
“There used to be a window between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. where I could get out on the road and essentially go anywhere within the territory. … From what I noticed since the pandemic, that window is gone and there is traffic all the time,” he said.
Some drivers were quick to point to their actual experiences as proof that there has been no relief from the car-choked roadways.
Juan DeJesus, 38, said it has taken him nearly three times as long to get to his Huntington home from his job in Forest Hills.
“It was 2 p.m. and it took me 2 hours and 20 minutes," DeJesus said of a May 25 commute.
He has noticed more commercial traffic on the roads.
“Right now, it’s just eighteen-wheelers, eighteen-wheelers," DeJesus said.
Schwartz said truck congestion has a spillover effect and causes motorists to switch routes.
“If the LIE gets overloaded, people go to the Grand Central Parkway or the Northern State. When that gets overloaded, people will choose the Southern State, so there's no escaping the traffic.”
Judy Brady, from Dix Hills, agreed. “When I am on the LIE, there [are] a heck of a lot of trucks … I stay off the parkways because they do get packed,” Brady said.
David Kang commutes to Flushing from Syosset and finds the roads constantly backed up, whether it’s early morning or afternoon.
Kang added with certainty, “There are a lot more cars out there.”