On the long road back from COVID-19, experts say driving on LI will be tough


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Second in an occasional series on the future of transportation in the region

Long Islanders have a lot of things to look forward to as the coronavirus pandemic recedes. Getting around easier may not be one of them.

Some transportation experts predict Long Island could emerge from the public health crisis with even more traffic congestion — an outcome they attributed to a slew of changes on the roads that were triggered by the pandemic.

Flexible new work schedules could make rush hours longer, some experts said, while those continuing to work from home could increase weekday backups on local roads. Long Island Rail Road riders who retreated to their cars amid fears of crowded trains may continue to drive. And surging levels of online shopping may become the new normal, keeping many more delivery trucks on the roads.

If borne out, these predictions could deepen long-standing problems in the region linked to its dependence on cars, bringing more air pollution, more car crashes, more wear and tear on roads and bridges, and even more time wasted in traffic.

“The levels of traffic are going to either remain the same or go higher,” said Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors’ Association. “Long Island has a love affair with the car, and there’s nothing that’s changing that.”

Nassau and Suffolk county residents enjoyed a reprieve from congestion during the state shutdown last spring, when traffic on state highways fell by half, according to the state Department of Transportation. But it has been building since, now reaching about 85% of its pre-pandemic level, according to Rich Causin, acting director of the department’s Long Island office.

Eyes on mass transit

The fate of Long Island’s roads depends largely on mass transit, experts said.

LIRR ridership and local traffic plummeted last spring when many began staying home amid shutdown orders. But while many drivers have returned, railroad riders have not. The train system is at about 30% of pre-pandemic passenger levels, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Meanwhile, traffic on Long Island’s major highways is well up from its low point last spring, according to state transportation department data. Daily westbound weekday traffic along key stretches of the Long Island Expressway and the Northern and Southern State parkways measured about 190,000 vehicles in March. That’s down from 223,000 at the same locations on a weekday in February 2020, but well up from 117,000 in March 2020.

The number of cars on Long Island also appeared to increase last year, per state Department of Motor Vehicles data. Nassau and Suffolk counties had 2,457,000 vehicle registrations in effect at the end of 2020, a 5% increase over the 2,336,000 in 2019.

“The demands on the roads are likely to be higher than they were pre-pandemic, even with an increase in work from home, if people switch from transit to driving,” said Sam Schwartz, a transportation engineer and former New York City traffic commissioner. “Long Island will see worse traffic over the next couple of years.”

Jim Murphy could be among the new drivers. Before the pandemic, he traveled two hours door to door on the LIRR from his home in East Northport to his law office in lower Manhattan. Once the pandemic is over, he expects to drive.

“Having not done that for so long, because of remote work, it seems like something that’ll be kind of hard to dive back into, the mass transit game,” said Murphy, who has been working from home since March 2020.

He said he has been to the office only twice since the pandemic started, and both times he drove. It seemed safer than being on a train with strangers, he said, and it proved faster, too.

Murphy expects to continue working from home part of the week after the pandemic. In that case, he estimates the cost of driving versus taking the train would be about the same.

“Monthly Long Island Rail Road passes are not necessarily a money saver if I’m not going into the office five days a week,” he said.

The work-from-home factor

Murphy may not be the only Long Islander still working from home.

According to a survey of 133 U.S. company executives conducted in November in December by PwC, a multinational professional services firm with an office in Melville, only 17% expressed a desire to get employees back into offices as soon as possible, while more than half intend to expand remote work or think they’re better off getting rid of their offices entirely.

17% The percentage of U.S. company executives who expressed a desire to get employees back into offices as soon as possible, according to a survey of 133 of them conducted in late 2020.

Perhaps on Long Island as well. At Henry Schein, the Island’s largest public company based on revenue, almost all 1,250 employees at the firm’s Melville headquarters have been working from home during the pandemic — up from less than 2% before COVID-19. For some, the switch could be permanent.

“The company is currently going through a process to determine which roles will permanently be moved to home, which ones will return to the office, and which ones will be set up using a hybrid structure,” Ann Marie Gothard, vice president for global corporate media relations, wrote in an email.

More Long Islanders working from home could reduce highway rush hour traffic but amplify congestion at other times and places, Herbst said.

“The peak-hour traffic will not be at a set period. It’s maybe longer, different durations,” he said. “The travel patterns will not be the traditional east-west.”

It also could mean more drivers on main streets and in strip mall parking lots during the workday.

That’s been Daniel Seron’s experience. Working from home during the pandemic, the Northport resident is making many more local trips than usual — so much so that he’s at risk of exceeding the mileage limit on his car lease, he said.

“Under usual conditions, it’s drive to the train station, in the city, drive back home, and then the occasional usage on weekends,” said Seron, who used to commute by train to his real estate development job in the city. “Since all of this, I’ve been racking up so many miles.”

Seron said he did not expect to return to his office full time anytime soon.

114% The increase in spending by Long Islanders at online retailers with no brick-and-mortar shops during the first nine months of the pandemic, compared to the same period the year before, according to state data. 

Then, there are the delivery trucks. During the first nine months of the pandemic, Long Islanders spent at least $3.6 billion at online retailers with no brick-and-mortar shops, according to state data. That’s a 114% increase over the same period the year before.

“Our curbs are just flooded with boxes and boxes and boxes,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who sits on the Senate’s Transportation Committee. “Our municipalities can’t even keep up with it.”

Kaminsky expects the online shopping, and extra commercial traffic, to stick around.

“The sprinter van traffic is going to continue,” Kaminsky said. “I don’t think that’s going anywhere.”

New Long Islanders, new drivers

Another trend possibly driving traffic on Long Island: new residents.

The number of people seeking to change their address from New York City to Long Island jumped during the pandemic, according to U.S. Postal Service data previously reported by Newsday. Newcomers mean new cars, too — especially in Suffolk County, where the number of change-of-address requests was highest.

48,900 The number of temporary or permanent change-of-address requests the U.S. Postal Service received from the five boroughs to Nassau or Suffolk from March through the end of 2020.

From March through the end of 2020, the USPS received 48,900 temporary or permanent change-of-address requests from the five boroughs to Nassau or Suffolk, more than twice the 22,900 received during the same period the previous year, the data shows.

The jump was especially high in Suffolk, where permanent requests went from 6,500 to more than 12,600, and temporary requests went from under 1,000 to nearly 12,500.

“The great irony of this is, as the North Fork and the East End become more popular, they become more unlivable because of traffic. Montauk Highway is not designed to serve a year-round population,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management at New York University.

“Some of the people who moved out there are going to stay,” he added. “That’s not just a temporary phenomenon.”

While the pandemic may change the shape and flow of traffic, it will not alter the region’s fundamental dependence on cars, Moss said.

“For the day-to-day obligations of life, the automobile is still a vital part of the Long Island lifestyle,” he said.

The ever-changing landscape

Rising traffic will cause more than just delays, Schwartz said. More driving would be “worse for our environment, worse for car crashes, worse for our health, worse for climate change,” he said. “That’s something that would be really problematic if that continues.”

Extra cars — especially heavier vehicles like trucks — would cause more wear and tear on local roads and bridges, Herbst said. That in turn would necessitate greater road maintenance, and more funding from government agencies to pay for it, he said.

Causin said the future of the transportation department’s road repair budget depends largely on federal funding. The agency spent close to $416 million in fiscal year 2020-21 upgrading and maintaining its road network on Long Island, which includes the Long Island Expressway and other major highways, according to agency spokesman Joe Morrissey. He did not respond to a question about how much federal funding went to local road improvements.

Experts said commuting patterns will continue to evolve as conditions change.

For instance, a planned congestion pricing program in Manhattan could deter some commuters from driving into the city, Schwartz said. While the proposal has faced delays, it cleared a key hurdle in March when the Federal Highway Administration announced it would require only an environmental assessment instead of a lengthier environmental impact statement.

In other places where it has been implemented, congestion pricing caused about 15% of drivers to change their behavior, like by switching to carpooling or mass transit, Schwartz said.

Schwartz also noted LIRR improvements in the works, like the planned opening of a stop at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, could lure some drivers back to mass transit.

“There aren’t traffic improvement measures on the horizon in the next 10 or 20 years that are going to make the Long Island Expressway any better, or the Grand Central Parkway any better,” Schwartz said.

“But there is something on the horizon that will make the Long Island Rail Road better,” he said, referring to the new Manhattan station.

The $11.1 billion project, known as East Side Access, will give LIRR riders a direct rail link to Manhattan’s east side, offering easier access to the office-filled skyscrapers of the Midtown East neighborhood. The MTA expects the project to serve around 162,000 daily customers and begin operating at the end of next year.

Herbst said it’s unlikely major new roads will be built on Long Island, given the cost of such projects and how densely settled the region already is. Adding lanes to existing roads is more feasible, he said.

But building new roads or lanes won’t alleviate congestion, said Michael Manville, an urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. While adding road capacity may speed up traffic in the short term, eventually it attracts new drivers who fill the extra capacity and bring congestion levels back up, he said.

“You can’t build your way out of this,” he said.

Instead, Manville said the only congestion-fighting measure proved to work is tolling roads.

The average Long Islander already spends 81 hours a year sitting in traffic, according to a 2020 report by TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit transportation research group. If that figure grows, traffic itself could prove a deterrent to new drivers.

“If everyone in the world has the same idea, and you start having a situation where you’re never getting over 10 miles per hour on the LIE, then I’ll probably have to reassess,” said Murphy, the East Northport commuter.


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