For Long Islanders, the title of this article Life On The Long Island Expressway can be taken quite literately. Simply because for the millions of us who have lived a large portion of our lives on Long Island, we have also spent a major part of that time sitting in traffic on the LIE. There has always been simply no way around it. The story of Life on the Long Island Expressway is most tragic for people who commute to work on a daily basis from Suffolk and Nassau counties into the boroughs of New York City. In the 1970s and 1980s, commuters used to try and beat the traffic by leaving at five in the morning to head into the city while leaving the city before 3:00 pm to beat the traffic on the way back. That, for the most part, doesn’t work anymore. Long Island Expressway traffic is pretty constant all day long. There are some time periods worse than others during the day, but the days of beating the traffic are pretty much long gone.
If you live on Long Island and work in New York City, you really have only two options. Some decide to take the Long Island Railroad, which of course presents a whole other world of headaches. Others decide to drive. It comes down to personal space and schedules. If you ride the Long Island Rail Road your at the mercy of train schedules. Factor in delays, missed trains and about a hundred other things that can go wrong on the Long Island Railroad, and your time schedule can be as consistent as the New York Jets making the playoffs. Now of course, there is also the complete loss of personal space on a train. There’s nothing worse than having someone’s sweat dripping on you. In these days of the virus, that has become life-threatening.
Possibly the worse part of the Long Island Railroad commute is waiting under that board to find out which track your train will roll in on. Then it’s the mad dash down the stairs to find that the train isn’t even there there yet. Uggh! No thanks, I think I will drive.
The problem facing many people who choose to take the LIRR over driving is parking. If you work in Manhattan and your company does not have parking for you, or at least pays for it, parking garages will drain more money form your wallet than dating a Kardashian. Even in the boroughs its tough to park. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of people a day choose driving into the city to go to work or school every day, over taking the Long Island Rail Road. This is how they do it……..
My family makes fun of me when I get excited that a new 7-Eleven is opening up in the neighborhood. They don’t understand the role 7-Eleven plays in a commuter’s daily life. There is absolutely no way that a one to three hour commute on the Long Island Expressway can commence without a 16 ounce cup of 7-Eleven Coffee by my side, nestled next to an apple fritter or Hostess Cup Cake. I have dreamed for years that car makers will find a way to install a coffee brewer in the dashboard. It just hasn’t happened.
Now, not everyone stops at 7-Eleven for coffee, The prevalence of Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks have fueled a monstrous competition for the coffee dollar, But I can almost guarantee you that just about one in every three cars on the Long Island Expressway in the morning has stopped at one of those three stores. And if not one of those three, they stopped at the deli or bagel store. Just look to your side while you driving and I guarantee you will see a hand on the steering wheel and another holding a coffee or doughnut. Which leads us to a very important point.
When my sons started driving, I gave them what I believe to be life and death advice, “do not stare at other drivers.” In the morning, on the Long Island Expressway, most drivers are in still sort of a zombie state of being. Staring at other drivers really doesn’t matter much because no one will stare back at you. No one will even know you’re staring at them. Its on the way back or in the middle of the day when it can be a problem. Staring down another driver on the Long Island Expressway is only going to lead to trouble. Even if it’s a completely innocent stare. Have you ever stared at another driver and have them returned the stare with a smile? No, its usually a Robert Deniro “you looking at me response.” Yeah I know he says “talking to me,” in the movie, but you get my point. In the end, communication with another driver on the Long Island Expressway is a big no no and anyone who has commuted their entire lives would agree with that.
Why do people try to take revenge on someone who they believe is driving to slow by cutting them off and almost assassinating them with their car? It just doesn’t make sense when we are all sitting in traffic and pretty much going nowhere. Yes, of course there are breaks on the Long Island Expressway when traffic miraculously will start to move quickly for an exit or two. But, invariably we will all come to a screeching halt again that Mario Andretti type driver who cut you off will be sitting in traffic with you to enjoy the same suffering. Another word of advice I gave my sons. If someone is tailgating you, don’t try to teach them a lesson by being stubborn about it and not moving. It’s not going to work. Move to the right and watch them pass you by and do it to the next person. A moron will always be a moron. That is life on the Long Island Expressway. Remember we have chosen a Long Island Expressway over the Long Island Railroad to keep at least some personal space around us. It doesn’t make sense to interact with other drivers and have that personal space invaded, even if its just from a mental state of being.
Most commuters drive alone to work. Depending on where you stop and where you finish, commute times will always vary on the Long Island Expressway. I commuted from Exit 58 in Nesconset to Long Island City getting off at Exit 22 for the Grand Central Parkway for years. Then I took the Grand Central to Hoyt Avenue and 31st. Some mornings the commute would take 90 minutes, other mornings two hours. If it was raining, it could take sometimes three hours. Every once in awhile and usually in the summer time you could get lucky and make it in an hour. The point is, you just never knew what traffic was going to be like. You just knew it was usually going to be bad. There are multiple points on the Long Island Expressway where traffic can be excruciating. It’s usually at points where the other major Long Island Parkways intersect with the Long Island Expressway. At times, it can be maddening, but when it does get to that point and the coffee is all gone, the one saving grace for many of us has always been Howard Stern
Howard Stern is not everyone’s vision of a savior, but I would argue that a very high percentage of commuters on the Long Island Expressway are listening to the Stern shown sitting in all that traffic. I once had a guy at a car wash in Smithtown tell me that just abut every car that pulled into the car wash had Howard Stern on the radio. If you were not into Stern or if you didn’t follow him onto Sirius, you were or probably still are listening to WFAN or WBAB. I miss Bob Buchmann, he was a great Long Island guy who had a great spirit abut him and made you feel good about living on Long Island. There was just something about WBAB and the Long Island Expressway. I always loved seeing that black and orange WBAB van drive by me on the LIE.
Not everyone who commutes on the Long Island Expressway does the traditional head west early morning commute while heading east in late afternoons. Hospital workers, entertainers, police, and so many other types of career people work shifts that run 24 hours a day. It’s why the traffic never ends on the Long Island Expressway. Sometimes traffic can be nightmare at 3 am in the morning because of construction. There is nothing like trying to stay awake on the Long Expressway at three in the morning after working a late shift while sitting in traffic that is not even moving because only one lane is open or all traffic is being to diverted to the side road. Good Grief!
Some commuters who drive into the city every day never take the Long Island Expressway. They opt for the Northern State or Southern State Parkways. I have never liked the Parkways, they wind back and forth two much and cars entering from the entrance ramps give me mini strokes while I am driving. They are also longer routes and fill up with traffic just as much as the Long Island Expressway. I’d rather sit in a straight line and drink my coffee and listen to Howard than have to deal with a driving experience that feels like Death Race 2000 on those parkways.
Life on the Long Island Expressway is a way of life for so many Long Islanders. If you live on the Island and work in the city and hate the trains, there is no way around the LIE. However, people adapt and learn how to deal with it if they have jobs they love or at least do well in. The LIE becomes part of life as a long islander. Those who work in their towns or don’t have to commute are very fortunate at least from a traffic point of view.
The events of the past couple of months with the Coronavirus have changed everything. The trains and the roadways have never been as empty as they have been since March. No one knows what the future brings, but I have a real good feeling that one day not in the too distant future we will all be sitting in traffic together again listening to Howard or Boomer, drinking our coffees and Lattes and sitting in excruciating slow traffic on the Long Island Expressway. It’s already starting to happen again. It probably will be the worse its ever been because most people are going to switch to cars and avoid the trains due to the virus. Hey it could be worse, we could be sitting on the Cross Bronx Expressway, or riding an elephant in traffic like the poor guy below…..
For a deeper history of Long Island’s major roadways and the man behind it all, check out our Robert Moses article.