Even as bridge tolls increase, gap with fares widens

This week, tolls increased on the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time in 6 years, to $6 with FasTrak. Though there was some grumbling and a bit of consternation from drivers who now need to deal with a more expensive commute, these cost hikes are no stranger to transit riders, who have faced annual fare increases for over a decade.

A quick look at the discount toll and average discount fare (adjusted for inflation) starts to get at the picture:

Inflation-adjusted fares and tolls in 2014 dollars through 2018. Notice that the fare's increase is not linear, which is because the annual hikes are percentage-based, not dollar-based like the tolls.

Inflation-adjusted fares and tolls in 2014 dollars through 2018. Notice that the fare’s increase is not linear, which is because the annual hikes are percentage-based, not dollar-based like the tolls.

Though it’s obvious from above, the point is best expressed from the ratio of fares-to-toll:

Ratio of the average round-trip discount transit fare to the average discount toll, through 2018. Notice that the gap still increases despite annual toll hikes.

Ratio of the average round-trip discount transit fare to the average discount toll, through 2018. Notice that the gap still increases from 2014 through 2018 despite annual toll hikes. That’s because, as fares increase by 5 percent per year, tolls increase $0.25 per year, a percentage increase that gets less each year.

In 1992, the average round-trip bus fare was 1.62 times the discount toll. That ratio reached a high of 2.44 last July 1, when the latest fare increase was made. Now that the tolls have gone up, the ratio has dropped to 2.03, the lowest it’s been in 5 years, but that will be transitory. On July 1, when fares increase another 5 percent, the ratio will head back up again, to 2.14.

If fares continue to increase 5 percent every year, that ratio will continue to widen, even with annual $0.25 toll hikes, to 2.22 in 2018.

Strictly from an equity perspective, this is unjust. Bus riders tend to be lower-income, and so have a more difficult time taking fare hikes, while the opposite tends to be true of drivers. Not only that, but others who can’t drive – those who are blind, albino, elderly, and others - are disproportionately hit by fare hikes.

By pushing away those who have access to the driving alternative, too, the fare hikes render transit more and more into a second-class social welfare service rather than the first-class transportation service it could be.

From a technical perspective, those new drivers adds to congestion at the rush hours, forcing everyone, rider and driver alike, into a slog every morning and night. It’s a terribly inefficient transit system, destroying any advantage of having a freeway. San Francisco, Sonoma, and Marin all suffer.

Narrow goals lead to bad outcomes

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) has as its explicit goal that fares should cover at least 25 percent of bus operations and 40 percent of ferry operations. By raising fares regularly, GGBHTD is trying to hit that moving target. Bus ridership has dropped dramatically since 2000 and with it has fallen transportation income, while operating costs have jacked up the price of providing service.

To compensate, GGBHTD has hiked fares every year since 1998, boosting inflation-adjusted fares 82 percent.

The problem is that GGBHTD isn’t thinking like a business, where income is more than just a function of price, and it’s not thinking like a government agency, with broader societal concerns than mere income. The end result is a nonsensical and unjust policy of never-ending fare hikes far beyond inflation and ever-slower commutes.

Broaden the goals, reformulate the prices

The core technical mission of GGBHTD should be to help prevent congestion in the areas most immediately effected by its policies, namely Central and Southern Marin, and work with the transit and congestion management agencies in San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma to prevent or mitigate it in the rest of its commute shed. This would fit with the original founding purpose of Golden Gate Transit, which was to resolve congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge.

To ensure its historic, technical mission is fulfilled, GGBHTD needs to rework its pricing scheme with congestion in mind. This will mean tolls will rise, but not necessarily too much. If fares stay flat or even decrease, that daily congestion toll may not need to rise nearly so much to ensure congestion is alleviated. Physical changes, such as creating carpool lanes on 101 as far as Lombard in San Francisco, will also help mitigate congestion and, therefore, that toll hike.

The core social justice mission for GGBHTD should be to ensure transit is a tool of freedom for the poor and car-free, rather than make this one more way they can’t succeed. This would fit with the original purpose of having Greyhound take up the transit slack once our light rail system was put out of business by GGBHTD.

Yet progress is made in this equally historic social justice mission simply when GGBHTD meets its technical mission, which by necessity will decrease the fare/toll gap. If the district invests the new toll revenue in more frequent bus service and better bus infrastructure, it will elevate raise the prestige and enjoyment of using the bus system.

Finally, GGBHTD’s efforts will increase ridership (and therefore fares), to meet its new mission of keeping fare revenue in sync with operating costs.

The ever-rising gap between fares and tolls is symptomatic of deep dysfunction in the heart of GGBHTD. An obsession with a single metric – revenue – has led to an incredibly inefficient transportation system and caused the district to fail in the missions it was founded to accomplish. Drivers, riders, the poor, the rich – all suffer under this scheme.

*As Golden Gate Transit doesn’t keep historic bus and ferry fares available online, rather just fare increases, this is backwards-calculated from the average cost to travel from the North Bay to San Francisco on bus and ferry. GGT also doesn’t keep historic fare increases available from before 1993.

Marin is growing, and not slowly

Marin County’s population grew by 1 percent from 2012 to 2013, slightly faster than the state and much faster than the country at large. The new numbers challenge the concept of Marin as a naturally slow-growth county.

In total, Marin added about 2,500 people in 2013, bringing our population up to over 258,000 for the first time. If we keep up the pace, we’ll break 260,000 in 2014.

Our growth rate is 0.1 percentage points faster than California, which grew by 0.9 percent between 2012 and 2013, and 0.3 percentage points faster than the United States as a whole. It’s 0.3 points slower than the Bay Area at large, however, which was driven by swift growth in Alameda and Santa Clara (1.6 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively). Instead, rather than tracking with San Francisco, Marin grew at a rate typical of North Bay counties: 0.9 percent in Sonoma, 1.1 percent in Solano, and 1 percent in Napa.

This is far faster than our historic growth rate.

Between 2000 and 2010, Marin only added about 5,000 people in total, an annual growth rate of just 0.2 percent. In just 3 years, from 2010 to 2013, however, we added almost 6,000 people, an average annual growth rate of 0.7 percent.

Most of our newcomers were not new births but migrants. Natural increase – births minus deaths – accounted for less than 20 percent of the new population. Net migration accounted for the rest, showing that we aren’t a county of young, growing families.

While full demographic information for 2013 won’t be out until later this year*, results from 2012 showed that Marin has been steadily aging, with a new median age of 45.2, up from 44.5 in 2010. Marin is already the oldest county in the Bay Area with the most bedrooms per person, and this is likely not to decrease.

It will be interesting to see if these trends continue. If so, it will provide strong evidence that Marin is leaving behind its traditional role as a family-centered suburb and instead is entering a prolonged period as the Bay Area’s retirement community. If this year bucks the trend, then perhaps a future of rich retirees is not quite written in stone.

Either way, the slow-growth narrative is challenged by this past year’s growth. We are growing far faster than we did in the past decade, much more in line with the region and even faster than the state. It will be interesting to see how county leaders and activists respond.

*Once 2013 demographic data is released, we will revisit the analysis published in 2012: age, household size, household growth, units, bedrooms, rents, and household income.

Update: The source of the population growth figures is the United States Census, which estimates population each year for every county in the country.

Optical illusions on Fourth Street

While working on a piece about bike lanes, I stumbled across something odd that says a lot about how the built environment influences perceptions.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

Downtown San Rafael. Image from Google Maps.

A pet peeve of mine for years has been Fourth Street through West End in San Rafael. The neighborhood has struggled for years under the shadow of downtown, hidden just over a short hill, and street width is part of the reason I rarely spend time there. It just doesn’t feel cozy like downtown. Downtown is above this paragraph, West End is below.

San Rafael's West End

San Rafael’s West End

So when I got back street width data from city hall, I made a double take. Fourth Street through West End, which runs from H to E streets, was actually narrower than the rest of Fourth all the way to its end at Union, by up to 10 feet: 40 feet vs. 50 feet.

So why does it feel so much wider? Look again at the two pictures and you’ll see some stark differences. In downtown, the trees are older, the street parking is a bit fuller, and the buildings on both sides of the street cozy right up to the sidewalk. In West End, the buildings only cozy up to the sidewalk on one side of the street, with parking lots and show leading way back to squat buildings on the other side.

Those parking lots make the street appear significantly wider than it actually is, creating an optical illusion. I can’t think of a better example of how walkable development influences our sense of place better than this.

Red light cameras are good policy gone wrong

Red light cameras have been deployed around the country to great effect, reducing crashes dramatically in New York City and Washington, DC. Given these successes in the East, it was natural for San Rafael to give them a try. But police said they were ineffective at reducing crashes, and that they cost more than they took in, so the city recently ditched them. Given state law in California, the results in San Rafael start to make some sense.

Best practice: red light cameras

Traditional traffic enforcement is meant to be punitive. Police can’t be everywhere, so, to change behavior, any violation caught needs to be punishing and painful. As a result, California has extremely high fines for red light violations: a minimum of $489.

When a city switches on red light cameras, they generally try to limit them to key intersections. This ensures that most dangerous violations are caught, even if other violations at less important or less dangerous intersections are missed.

Psychologically, this is not effective, as it does not create a culture where traffic violations are simply not done. Serial red light runners will continue to do so wherever they like, just avoiding the two or three intersections where they know they’ll get caught. Research finds dummy cameras, which flash a light but take no picture, are effective at stopping red light running, a strong indicator that running lights is often a conscious decision.

To change behavior, one must apply a little force consistently, not a lot of force inconsistently. Red light cameras, when seen in this light, don’t do a very good job. They should be ubiquitous and cheap, with a relatively low-dollar ticket – maybe just $150 – that hits a driver for every red light run.

California’s red light ticket minimum means ubiquitous tickets would add up rapidly. As it is, just one $489 ticket can be half of someone’s take-home pay for the month, or worse. It’s unjust to use such a painful instrument to change behavior city-wide, even if the end of crashes prevented is noble.

As well, the high ticket fine opens cities up to criticism that traffic enforcement is simply a money grab, a politically toxic accusation that could kill any such comprehensive enforcement.

San Rafael’s experience

Without the flexibility to catch red light runners every time, San Rafael’s experience with cameras was a poor one. Though a 2012 grand jury report found crashes declined by 12 percent up to that point, a police spokeswoman told me crashes increased by 1 fatality.

The managing company, Redflex, was also a political headache. The IJ’s Megan Hansen reported, “Redflex has been losing contracts ever since it came under fire early last year when news broke the company was being investigated for corrupt business practices, including bribery and secret meetings.” Red light cameras are never politically easy, and paying a potentially corrupt company hundreds of thousands in taxpayer funds and ticket fines just makes things worse.

Though traffic enforcement is vital to creating a safe environment for all road users, San Rafael should focus its efforts on street design rather than automated enforcement. Though the impulse among some may be to keep fines high, road safety advocates should advocate for laws that do the most good, not just the ones that feel right.

To that end, California should create a two-tier system of ticket enforcement: one with dramatically lower fines for comprehensive automated enforcement schemes, and one with the existing fines for the spot-checking enforcement schemes cities rely on today.

Though it’s unfortunate San Rafael did not get a good deal for its cameras, removing them was ultimately a response to bad state law. Perhaps one day the city will be able to install a system that changes how we think about traffic laws, but until then it’s probably best to just go without cameras altogether.

Marin’s transit ridership in step with national trends

Public transit ridership in the United States is higher than it’s been since 1956: 10.7 billion trips, up 1 percent from last year. While this indicates an overall trend toward transit, it’s been driven largely by high-quality transit: heavy rail like BART, commuter rail like Caltrain, and light rail like Muni Metro.

Marin County’s transit picture largely echoes the national trend, though this is not a new story for our county. High-quality transit, namely trains elsewhere but ferries here, continues a ridership boom, as has commuter bus service, but local bus ridership continues to slowly slide. Overall, Marinites are taking more transit.

Local bus

Golden Gate Transit’s Marin-only service has been bleeding passengers for the past five years, from about 4.1 million to roughly 3.3 million today. Including Marin Transit’s independent operations, such as West Marin Stagecoach and school service, local ridership ticked down by 0.7 percent over last year, to 3.4 million trips.

Regional bus

Golden Gate Transit’s commuter and basic routes to San Francisco, however, are doing quite well. For the past 32 months ridership has grown and, year on year, grew by 1.3 percent over January, 2013, to about 2.5 million trips. This, however, is still down from 2004’s 3 million trips.

Ferry service

All that changes when you include the ferries. Despite a steep price hike in 2003, ferry ridership has been growing like gangbusters. Even excluding Sausalito, whose figures are skewed by tourists, Larkspur’s ridership growth has been more than enough to offset the long-term decline in regional bus ridership.

Larkspur ridership grew by 7.3 percent in the past year, from approximately 1.5 million trips last year to about 1.6 million this year. Sausalito ridership grew twice as fast, 14.9 percent, though at around 750,000 annual trips it’s still a small share of total ridership.

The rapid growth in the ferry system continues a now-32 month growth streak begun in 2011. It shot through its all-time record, set in 1978, in 2012, and shows no sign of slowing down.

What it all means

The national trend toward transit is really a national trend toward quality transit. Buses that come every hour and take 4 times as long to get around as a car just don’t cut it.

Indeed, even as MTC has focused a huge amount of attention and money on moving people faster in cars, it has spent almost no time focused on moving people faster on transit. BART is the only major investment in the past half-century that has dramatically improved mobility through the Bay Area, but has now been expanded to areas that do little to boost ridership. Other booming systems are those that feel higher-class or that run as fast or faster than driving, such as Caltrain.

In that light, it’s no surprise Marin’s high-class transit service, the ferry, is doing so well. So too is it no surprise that commuter buses, which generally offer a nicer ride than local buses, are steadily growing as well. Combined, the two systems grew by 3.5 percent this past year, quite a bit faster than Golden Gate Bridge traffic, which is up 2.4 percent.

These and national trends should guide GGBHTD and Marin Transit as they choose their capital investments. Big investments in the bus system should focus on speed, for both the locals and commuters, and comfort, for the commuters. Signal priority, for example, which allows approaching buses to turn red lights green, would help make schedules more reliable and make the bus more competitive against the car.

Small investments should focus on usability and connectivity. Open-source real-time arrival data for all buses, for example, would be a huge boon for riders, dispelling the anxiety one gets waiting for an infrequent bus to come.

For ferries, their extremely fast growth rate means capacity problems are on the horizon. GGT needs to start laying the groundwork for more crossings from Larkspur. Ongoing problems with midday ridership will continue to be a roadblock to better service as well. Even faster-growing ridership at Sausalito may require more ferries to meet the demand.

Marin’s experience shows national trends are indeed applicable to our county. Investments in usability, in connectivity, and in higher-quality trips would capitalize on overall demand for transbay travel, while investments in frequency and speed could stop the slide of local service. Transit planners here would do well to learn from the successes of others.

Substandard bus stops drench, humiliate riders

A soaked bench at the Depot. Image by the author.

A soaked bench at the Depot. Image by the author.

During Marin’s big Pineapple Express a few of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of taking the bus all over Marin. Stepping off a bus without worrying about parking or gas or finding the car always feels liberating to me, so I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect. But thanks to bad stop design, I and my fellow riders got soaked.

After chatting up some of protestors of WinCup, I walked along the narrow sidewalk to the closest southbound bus pad, not just to see what the walk was like but also because I had to get to Mill Valley. Aside from protestors using up the entire sidewalk width, forcing me to walk in the street, it wasn’t so bad. The bus pad, though, was another story.

The bus pad shelter allowed the wind to whip rain right in the face of me and my fellow travelers. The bench was so soaked that sitting would have made for a cold and soggy experience. Someone else waiting spoke very little English but pointed at the rain and the bench and laughed. “Very wet,” she said, and it was quite clear she thought the situation was ridiculous. Though she was heading to Mill Valley, too, she hopped on the next bus that came (Route 36) just to get out of the wet. I decided to stick it out, though, and my Route 17 bus arrived soon enough.

Alas, the Mill Valley Depot, central bus station of this most wealthy of towns, was in even worse shape. The roof dripped everywhere, soaking not just the benches but anyone who risked standing under it without an umbrella. Water trickled in from every slat in the roof and positively poured in through the light fixture.

The state of repair on the Depot and the quality of the bus pad stops tells riders, You don’t really matter. For one of the wealthiest counties in the country and one that prides itself on being green and supporting the less fortunate, that’s unacceptable.

If buses are a travel mode of equal stature to the car or ferry, bus stops – especially signature stops like the Depot – need to be treated like it. They should be comfortable, or at least bearable. The people who ride the bus for work or out of necessity do matter.

Anti-smart growth advocate defends urbanism

It’s not often you’ll find people arguing against smart growth while also arguing for urbanism. When it happens, one wonders if it was a mistake. That seems to be the case with a screed penned by Lawrence McQuillan of the Independent Institute in Oakland, though his argument is worth highlighting.

While arguing that density isn’t a very effective way of decreasing greenhouse gases, he makes the market urbanist argument I’ve made time and again in this blog:

If governments ended their war on home construction, builders could buy the land they need to construct the housing that local people want, not housing that politicians and smart-growth activists want. That would increase the stock of affordable housing and help the environment too.

While McQuillan digs at smart growth, his critique more aptly applies to our country’s existing urban policies. We have spent so long trying to structure and restrict where and how our cities grow, especially within already built-up areas, we’ve made our cities totally unaffordable for those who want to live there and our suburbs too far from the core for those who want the big-yard, drivable lifestyle.

McQuillan adds: “[H]ere lies the folly of government master plans to control growth. People are not chess pieces to be moved about at the will of politicians and bureaucrats. People have dreams and aspirations for themselves and their families.” And yet through policies that have been in place for over 60 years, politicians and bureaucrats have played a helluva lot of chess with our lives.

If governments like those in Marin lifted density and parking controls and focused instead on maintaining small-town character, if they stopped artificially segregating commercial and residential uses, if the federal government stopped its $450 billion annual subsidy for single-family home development*, if the state stopped subsidizing 70 percent of road maintenance and construction with sales taxes and other non-user fees, perhaps we’d see some equilibrium return to our transportation and housing markets. We wouldn’t need regional housing quotas or ABAG or affordable housing grants because the housing market would simply meet the demand.

It’s unfortunate that only one kind of government intervention – the kind he doesn’t like – is the target of McQuillan’s ire. The massive and ongoing interventions in our real estate market deserve just such a libertarian flaying.

*Yes, that’s almost a half-trillion dollars every year in direct and indirect subsidies for single-family home development.

Hat tip to Save Marinwood for the article.

Kickstarter to document the world’s changing streets

Our streets are changing. There are more bike lanes for more bikers, better sidewalks, better streetscapes. You can see it in Fairfax near the Good Earth or any time you’re in San Francisco.

But how are they changing, and why? How are cities learning to finally deal with congestion and accommodate other modes of travel? Todd Drezner wants to take a look, but he needs a little help to move beyond New York City. He wants to film across the United States and even take it international.

You can watch the trailer here.

The Kickstarter fundraiser ends tomorrow at 5pm and, as of this writing, he still needs about $2,000 to make his goal of $25,000. If he doesn’t make it, he gets nothing. If he does, he gets the full amount. If you’re as interested in the intersection between travel and urban design, maybe you’ll want to give to make sure it happens.

A counter-petition starts in Strawberry

A new petition – still small – is trying to inject some sense into the Strawberry priority development area (PDA) debate. It’s about time.

The core contention of the petition is simple: the PDA is not about housing, it’s about transportation funding. To cut out the transportation funding just eliminates transportation funding, leaving any housing plans intact.

The success of Marinwood activists has been the removal of the PDA but intact housing plans. The success of North San Rafael activists was the removal of the PDA but an intact station area plan. What did they accomplish? Political victories that do nothing to advance their stated goal of downsizing housing plans.

What’s a PDA again?

As I’ve written before, a PDA, or priority development area, is a funding mechanism for a part of the region. It’s entirely voluntary and entirely without strings attached. Half of Marin’s transportation dollars must go to a PDA.

At the moment, the regional funds dedicated to PDAs are for planning, so shovels can’t go in the ground, but that just means we can start the process of building real improvements to the county’s transportation infrastructure.

What is the PDA not?

Critics, including frequent commentor on this blog Richard Hall, will point to the application process, which requires an area to have plans for more housing before it can become a PDA, to say that a PDA by definition is a housing plan.

But that’s like saying a credit card, by requiring a certain income level on the application, is income. Of course that’s ridiculous. You had your income before the card. In the same way, any housing zone or plan must be before and, therefore, separate from the PDA.

That’s why anti-housing activists have seen such failure in their stated aim of stopping housing plans.

Conflict roils Strawberry

There are two housing plans that are causing discord in Strawberry: the Seminary housing plan and the county’s housing element. Of these, the Seminary housing plan is what qualified Strawberry to become a PDA first place.

The arguments against housing are diverse but familiar – it would destroy the character of the area, add to traffic congestion and school crowding, cause crime and bring in the wrong kind of people.

Added to the mix are long-running concerns over the existing traffic. The roads in Strawberry are unsafe for anyone who isn’t in a car, especially Belvedere Drive and Tiburon Boulevard. If there are more people, the thinking goes, the problems will get even worse.

Simply put, every one of these arguments is not germane to the discussion of a PDA. Even if housing did do all these things – and, if they did, Strawberry’s high rate of rental housing would surely correlate it to having the worst crime in the county – housing plans are separate from the PDA.

Indeed, remaining within the PDA would provide money to start fixing the problems Strawberry has. Starting grants totaling $210,000 would pay for a comprehensive study of bike and pedestrian infrastructure needs in the area as well as designs for a new Tiburon Boulevard interchange.

Exceptional needs

There are serious gaps in the walking and biking infrastructure throughout Strawberry, and some of it has been the target of quite a bit of ire from local families.

Redwood Highway, Seminary Drive, Belvedere Drive and Reed Boulevard all have no consistent bike or pedestrian infrastructure. Belvedere Drive especially is a fast and dangerous road. Some segments lack sidewalks and all of it is bereft of bike lanes.

Considering that it is the principal route for kids walking from the park to the shopping center, it is an accident waiting to happen. Calming the road with more and better sidewalks and shallower turns has been on the agenda of the neighborhood for years. The PDA is the best chance to make that happen.

Tiburon Boulevard: why it matters to the rest of Marin

The interchange is the biggest project in the area. Caltrans wants to install metering lights at most interchanges up and down the 101 corridor to smooth traffic flow, especially during the evening commute. Tiburon is the start of the nightly Greenbrae corridor mess as service workers leave jobs on the peninsula and head home to Contra Costa.

With a PDA, the Tiburon interchange will be eligible for regional funding, ensuring the project will finally go forward. It would also give leverage to local needs, such as a safe bike path and sidewalk across the bridge and bus pads that don’t require riders to walk across a freeway off ramp. Caltrans has historically been quite hostile to these concerns, so any advantage in negotiating with them could go a long way.

Improving the Tiburon interchange is a project of countywide importance, as it’s key to breaking the Greenbrae Corridor jam. As well, improving that bridge would allow students to finally bike or walk to school in safety, helping ease school traffic through lower Mill Valley. Remember that traffic flow tends to drop off rapidly beyond a certain point; a drop in car travel of even a few percentage points can have enormous impact.

Time to stop fighting shadows

Citizen Marin and the (newly formed) Strawberry Community Association have done Strawberry a grave disservice by spreading myths and fear about their local PDA. Their petition is full of the patently absurd, arguing that the PDA would be a tax giveaway to developers and threaten endangered species.

It’s a glimmer of hope in this never-ending, fearful, angry debate that some people have stood up to say enough. Perhaps you’d like to sign up and join them.

Walking is key to smart planning

The concept of transit-oriented development (TOD) has been thrown around Marin for years, and for good reason. The idea is that by putting new homes near transit, fewer people will drive and more people will take transit to work.

This, coincidentally, is Marin’s experience.

Marin’s towns were built with the understanding that most people would take the old light rail and ferry to work, and so we did. Though the light rail is long gone, our homes, businesses and transit hubs stayed put. As a result, Marin is one of the most transit-happy counties in California, trailing only San Francisco and Alameda in the percentage of its people commuting by transit. One in four people heading across the Golden Gate Bridge in the morning are on a bus.

Perhaps, though, it is understandable that IJ columnist Dick Spotswood would overlook the ongoing success of TOD in Marin. This transit-friendliness doesn’t seem to extend to the daily lives of Marinites, which often revolve around driving for all our errands. It’s so obvious to him, in fact, that he calls TOD “greenwashing.”

But Spotswood missed the secret power of transit-oriented development. It’s not the transit. What is it?

Continue reading on Marin IJ.

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