Bike Sharing, Social Justice, and Urban Villages

Green Street

I’ve seen several complaints raised on the web and twitter that Pronto Bike Share only serves the wealthier neighborhoods of the city, and has ignored lower-income neighborhoods like the Rainier Valley. Certainly if bike sharing is going to be a vital part of the city’s transportation infrastructure, equitable delivery of service should be a top concern. But while much of the criticism of station locations is is well-intentioned, and equitable access to bike sharing could certainly be improved, any analysis needs to account for how bike sharing operates in practice.

To understand this problem, it helps to think about the kinds of trips bike sharing is used for. Washington, DC’s Capital BikeShare provides some great data about their system usage. One of the key take-aways is that most trips are one-way: pick up at one station and return at another. The pricing structure of bike share systems encourages short trips, further incentivizing this behavior. Renting a bike for a couple of hours while you go run errands or meet someone for lunch gets rather costly. Car2Go uses a similar pricing model: one designed to get the vehicles back into circulation as quickly as possible.

Therefore, a single Pronto rack next to, say, the Columbia City Link station, would likely be underutilized*. An effective bike sharing system requires a relatively dense mesh stations within a mile or so of one another. To get the ridership levels you need within that service area, the overall population density across the entire network has to be moderately high. This is why it works well in cities like London, Paris, and DC, with a relatively uniform density per square mile.

Pronto Station Map

Pronto Station Map

One major factor working against the expansion of bike share in Seattle (besides the hills) is the “urban village” strategy we’ve adopted to handle growth. By concentrating growth in dense nodes surrounded by a sea of single-family housing, we’ve created a non-uniform density pattern that limits bike share’s potential expansion (this also presents challenges for effective transit, but that’s an argument for another day).

That’s not to say that bike share programs can’t be made more equitable or accessible. Philadelphia is doing some interesting work removing barriers to payment, for example. And to the Mayor’s credit, he is planning to expand Pronto out to the Central District in his 2015 budget (the CD’s status as a lower-income neighborhood is also an argument for another day – but the adjacency to the existing network makes it an easy add).

Making bike share work in the Rainier Valley (or North Seattle, for that matter) would require more than installing a single bike station next to each light rail station. It would be require dozens of bike stations peppered throughout the area. And until the Valley (or the North End) gets much denser, that would probably be a money-losing proposition. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t be done! From an equity perspective it may be perfectly justifiable to expand access through subsidy, but that’s the conversation we should be having.

* Bike sharing can be successful for extending the walk shed around a transit station (54% of Capitol BikeShare trips start or end at a transit station) but it requires multiple rental stations to be effective. Adding more bike racks and lockers and Link stations is probably a better way to support last-mile access in Seattle, at least for now.

First Red Bus Lane Opens Today

Red Bus Lanes Euston Road

Red Bus Lanes Euston Road. Flickr user Ian Fisher.

[UPDATE: the other locations are Wall St. between 3rd and Denny, Midvale Pl. approaching Aurora Ave, and Pacific St. approaching the Montlake bridge.]

SDOT is unveiling it at 3pm:

First Red Bus Lane Installed in Seattle

First of four locations with new red marking; More on-street transit improvements coming

WHAT:  First block of red bus lane installed in Seattle

WHEN:  Today – Tuesday, October 21 at 3:00 p.m.

WHERE:  Southwest corner of Battery Street and Fourth Avenue

Today Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) crews will be completing Seattle’s very first block of red transit lane. Scott Kubly, director of SDOT, will highlight this brand new bus facility, explain where you will see more red lanes in 2014, and discuss other improvements to help transit in 2014 and 2015.

This is one of those simple things that makes a big difference. A NYC study suggests that painting the road a noticeable color increases compliance. Four other locations (announced at 3pm) will get this treatment in 2014. One also hopes this would encourage conversion of part-time bus lanes (like 3rd Avenue) into full-time ones.

Save the R.H. Thomson Expressway: Vote No on Prop 3

Imagine if this hadn't been built.

Imagine if this hadn’t been built.

We’re on the eve of the biggest civic mistake in the history of our fair city. After 4 decades of protest following their narrow defeat in 1972, anti-freeway activists are poised to prevail at last. In just 3 weeks Seattleites will vote on whether to dismantle  the RH Thomson Expressway.

The fabled roadway — long thought dead after being defunded by the City Council, only to be resurrected at the last minute by the barest majority of forward-thinking citizens — may not win any prizes for aesthetic beauty. But the workhorse highway dutifully carries 110,000 vehicles per day, providing both critical capacity and mobility through Central Seattle and an essential bypass of Downtown for people traveling through Lake City, Sand Point, the University District, the Central District, the Rainier Valley, and South King County. Yet the seismically vulnerable structure is due for replacement, and in an act of unparalleled delusion, we are balking. If approved by Seattle voters in November, Proposition 3 would remove all 6 cloverleaf interchanges, sink the Union Bay tunnel, remove the median, and narrow the roadway to just two lanes between the Arboretum and Madison St, and four lanes (two of them parking) between Madison and the I-90 interchange. This is not a road diet, this is a road hunger strike. We must step back from the edge before its too late. We must save mobility in Central Seattle.

Imagine a Seattle without the RH Thomson. People commuting from Kirkland to Boeing Field would be forced against their will to funnel onto an already-congested Interstate 5. Those accustomed to the swift trip underneath Union Bay would be subjected to a long slog through the surface streets of Montlake instead. Vehicles headed for I-90 Eastbound will have to backtrack all the way to Rainier Ave S. And let’s not forget that the booming retail corridor in the Central District owes its very existence to the RHT: the Walmart Supercenter at E Union Street, the Cabela’s at S Massachusetts St, and the 13 car dealerships that make up Atlantic’s famed Auto Row. Imagine Seattle without these sales tax revenues, 19% of which of which flow directly to our overburdened transit system.

[Read more...]

Re-examining the Urban Village Strategy

Recently, councilmember Sally Clark bravely broached the subject of reexamining the Urban Village Model. It should be pretty uncontroversial that after 20 years we would step back and assess a policy, but in the eyes of NIMBYs even talking about looking at the possibility of change in Single Family Zones is considered a capital offense.

The Urban Village Strategy was developed during the Norm Rice era to ‘protect’ Seattle from change by concentrating all growth in existing urban areas. On the surface the idea is pretty sound. Put people and resources where there are already people and resources, the opposite of sprawl.

A lot has changed in the last 20 years. Both in Seattle itself and with the country as a whole. More people want to live in Seattle and more people want to live in walkable urban neighborhoods. PSRC predicts 1,712,000 additional people to be living in our region by 2040; for political, economic, social, and ecological reasons we need the majority of those people to live in Seattle or nearby dense, urban, walkable communities. Currently only 8% of Seattle’s land is multifamily with an additional 6% being commercial and mixed use. This artificial scarcity raises the value (and thus costs) of developable land in these areas resulting in higher prices. When you permanently remove three quarters of the city’s land (49% of the land is Single Family – another 30% is Industrial, Public Facilities and Parks/Open Space) from the developable pool this means almost all growth and change is concentrated in small slivers of the city. Not only do these neighborhoods experience artificially high prices, but they also experience rapid change as growth is artificially concentrated there.

Density most definitely has its benefits, but spikes of incredible density in a sea of single family might not be the best solution. This is especially true if you are worried about the lack of 3 bedroom ‘family housing’ which is best supplied through town and row houses and not towers. If we want more family housing we need to open up more of the city to family housing, allowing these homes to be spread around and not artificially concentrated on a few blocks.

Or at least we should talk about it. We are a growing, vibrant, intellectual city, not a religious cult. No past policy should have the status of unquestionable dogma. Hopefully other leaders and officials won’t leave Sally Clark out in the cold, but will join her in saying that no policy is beyond discussion, even Urban Villages.

Metro cuts: follow-up with Kevin Desmond

This is a guest post.

Following my post regarding Metro service cuts and Kevin Desmond’s reply, Mr. Desmond very generously added some key details of financial projections, made time for a phone conversation, and then later commented on a draft of this article. Though I am grateful for Mr. Desmond’s time and help, I believe the details provided are actually strong evidence that the cuts are much greater than required, and that cuts can safely be postponed until a recession is apparent. Below I’ll review the financial projections and their implications, and then show Mr. Desmond’s response and other comments.

Background: Metro (and the county Executive) have proposed a financial plan that includes 250K annual hours of service cuts, introduced in 2015 and 2016, and funds a Revenue Stabilization Reserve (RSR) at a level intended to avoid further cuts in the case of a “moderate recession.” Others believe that the cuts may not be required, might be smaller, or could be deferred until the need is clearer.

About the financial projections based on a moderate recession, Desmond noted that the proposed reserve funding was not intended to handle another major recession such as started in 2008, but rather a more typical and frequent “moderate” recession. His office provided the following results of modeling based on a “moderate” recession (amounts are $M), compared with the OEFA forecast that assumes no recessions:

Revenue Stabilization Reserve Balance: Metro-provided results of financial plan based on a Moderate Recession starting 2018
End of 400k Reduction (Proposed) 150k Reduction (Current service)
Year OEFA Forecast Recession OEFA Forecast Recession
2015 300.54 300.54 235.28 235.28
2016 170.02 170.02 68.54 68.54
2017 219.17 219.17 68.48 68.48
2018 281.99 226.49 103.43 47.57
2019 384.19* 228.35 175.08 18.52
2020 494.71* 213.20 252.14 (30.49)**
2021 635.58* 228.39 357.10 (51.64)**

*The RSR balances in this table sometimes exceed Metro’s proposed target level of 50% of annual Sales Tax revenue. In the County Executive’s proposed budget, the excess (if any) is included in the Ending Undesignated Fund Balance. At the end of the 2019-20 biennium, this amount is $170M. The excess would be available for service growth.

**A negative balance indicate the added amount needed so that other fund balance targets would still be met.


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Seattle’s Proposed Linkage Fee

Affected areas in color, fee per sq. ft. Red = $16-22, yellow = $10-12, green = $5-7.

This Monday, the Seattle City Council is set to vote on a housing “linkage fee” — a tax on development to fund low-income housing. Given that it got all five votes out of committee, passage seems reasonably certain. As a member of team density, I’m supposed to hate this proposal. It does have its problems, but I think there are strong arguments ($) on both sides.

Only government subsidies can provide low-income housing. Even if we had a perfectly efficient housing market — and we’re not even close to that — anyone who can’t afford to pay the cost of capital of constructing a new housing unit is going to be out of luck. This is one of the few problems Seattle can’t solve by simply lifting caps on development. If we’re going to have a city open to all, there is an unavoidable role for government subsidy of housing costs, either through cutting checks for housing assistance or actually building social housing. This subsidy has to be funded somehow! However,

A tax on development is just about the worst possible revenue source. If the goal is to create the conditions for housing for all income levels, and it should be, then taxing new units is counterproductive. It’s true that landlords of new developments are unlikely to simply “pass fees on to renters,” as they’re already charging what the market will bear. But future supply is important for affordability too, and it’s not enough to simply allow developers to eke out a small profit.

At the very least, projects have to cover the cost of capital. The Council’s consultant report says that “all projects that DRA concluded would be financially feasible with no fee or performance requirement would still be economically feasible after paying the proposed fee.” (p. 4) But this assumes a threshold for “feasibility” of 6% return for residential projects and 10% for commercial ones (p.7).

The problem is that Seattle projects are competing for financing with ones in Bellevue, in Portland, and even in Jakarta, to say nothing of non-development investment opportunities around the world. Anything that impairs profitability deters construction of economically marginal projects, which are the ones Seattle most desperately needs to encourage. Indeed, the report (p. 11) later admits that

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Vote No on Seattle Citizen Petition 1 (New Monorail Agency)


It’s not very often that Seattle Transit Blog recommends rejection of a proposal to devote more resources to transit. Indeed, some board members voted for one or more of the monorail’s previous measures. However, the latest incarnation, “Seattle Citizen Petition 1,” attempts to address a real transportation need with a measure that is redundant, technically flawed, and that takes unnecessary organizational risks.

The petition, which would levy a $5 license fee to fund planning of a line between Ballard and West Seattle, is duplicative of recent Sound Transit efforts in the exact same corridor. Worse yet, the monorail plan would exclude promising underground options and alternative alignments like Ballard-UW.

These shortcomings lead to real technical problems. One reason that Sound Transit continually converges on underground alignments through dense cities is the intense opposition that elevated segments generate. Previous monorail plans never really solved this problem, and the current one envisions bypassing major activity centers and transit hubs downtown by traveling along the waterfront, a steep climb they hope to bridge with an added transfer to some other, unspecified, elevated technology, with the attendant transfer penalties and further political fights over elevated guideway.

The historical record suggests that new agencies running complicated capital projects will experience serious problems. Sound Transit had buy-in from local leaders and survived, but the Seattle Monorail Project did not, and didn’t.  Petition 1 will needlessly set up a new organization to learn the same hard lessons, and has not cultivated a broad base of support to get it through the tough times. The campaign is promising unrealistically short timetables, as if they are somehow immune to the Seattle process that afflicts every other public works project. Finally, the campaign rhetoric is very much in opposition to Sound Transit and the rest of the political establishment, which bodes ill for the joint planning and scheduling that creates a well-integrated transit system.

This measure’s probability of developing a high-quality transit line is virtually nil. Citizen Petition 1 is a waste of resources that distracts from much more promising and better-developed approaches to solve a real transportation problem. Vote No.

The STB Editorial Board currently consists of Martin H. Duke, Frank Chiachiere, Matthew Johnson, and Brent White.

S 200th Link Extension Photo Update

This is a guest post.

Here’s a collection of photos showing the latest construction progress on the S 200th Link extension.  Column construction appears to be complete or nearly complete and guideway construction appears to be almost halfway complete.

S 200th Link Construction: Looking towards the extension

From the platform of SeaTac/Airport Station looking south towards the guideway construction.

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News Roundup: Ice Cream (Traffic) Headache

Erin Medlicott (Flickr)

Erin Medlicott (Flickr)

This is an open thread.

Seattle Times: Yes on Prop. 1

1-1_Bus_Downtown_Sign_Seattle TMP photos 226

The Seattle Times Op-Ed board:

Seattle’s hourglass geography, increasing density and booming economy demand a world-class transit system. Metro still has work to do to restore lost credibility, but the benefits outweigh the costs.

Vote yes on Seattle Transportation Benefit District Proposition 1.

Many people expected the Times to recommend a No vote on this, based on the paper’s previous record of opposing transit funding. To me, however, this is an easy Yes for the ed board, for three reasons: (1) it’s narrowly focused on bus service and nothing else (2) it’s popular – Seattle voters have shown clearly they want to tax themselves. (3) it doesn’t go out of its way to soak the rich. (I’m avoiding using the “r” word here, but I’d be surprised if that wasn’t a factor in the board’s support.)

There’s another ballot measure on the horizon, for Sound Transit 3. It, too, will be narrowly focused. Expanding light rail is popular as well. It will be interesting to see how the Times comes down.

$3/$4 ST Express Cash Fares? Sound Transit Could Use the Extra Revenue

The Sound Transit Board of Directors is scheduled to take action on systemwide fare changes next month, raising all non-free fares $0.25, and creating a low-income fare, matching the youth fare.

However, the fare-revenue projections in the recently-released 2015 Draft Service Implementation Plan show a dip in fare revenue next year, even with the increase. (p.103)

The resulting ST Express fares, if the proposal goes through, would be $2.75 for 1-county trips and $3.75 for multi-county trips. It would be a simple matter to raise the cash fare to an even $3 for 1-county trips and $4 for multi-county trips. If it helps push riders to pay by tapping ORCA, then that would be wonderful for the rest of the riders already doing their part. If riders insist on paying with cash, at least most of them would be just shoving in dollar bills, instead of fishing for bills, then fishing for change.

If these fares seem high, consider that they are still less than or equal to what Community Transit is charging for its express routes, in all payer categories.

Charging more for cash fares than ORCA fares is not taboo. King County Ferries has been doing it for years. The low-income fare is ORCA-product-only, which means a de facto cash surcharge for low-income riders of $1.25 on 1-county ST Express trips and $1 on multi-county ST Express trips, if the Board approves staff’s fare proposal.

Given that most ST Express riders are already using ORCA, the reaction to tacking on an extra 25-cent cash surcharge for regular-fare payers would likely be something like this:

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Seattle Transit Blog meetup Oct. 20

Join Seattle Transit Blog and Sound Transit staff for a Meet-Up Monday Oct 20 from 5-7 p.m. The venue will be Oktoberfest-friendly Altstadt in Pioneer Square. This is your chance to chat with STB writers and editors as well as ST’s new communications director Craig Davison. Other ST planning and operations staff will be there, too.

If you are new to town and want to meet a friendly bunch of transit advocates (geeks) or if you’re an STB regular, this will be a great opportunity to connect faces to names & handles.

Please feel free to invite friends, partners & spouses – and please use the comment thread to RSVP.

See you on Monday!

10 Ways King County Metro is Better than Ever

This is a guest post.

We shouldn’t lose sight of many ways King County Metro service has improved in the past several years.  It is easy to do so in the midst of the constant financial struggles, plans for service cuts and measures to shore up funding (Plans A, B, C and now D) that dominate the news lately.  This post catalogs 10 improvements that Metro has introduced over the past years – in case you are new or forgot how it used to be.

I began riding Metro buses around 15 years ago, and for many of those years catching a bus meant pulling out your trusty printed schedule, seeing when the next 30-minute frequency bus was scheduled, walking to the stop at the appropriate time, waiting 0 to 10 minutes for arrival (it was impossible to know when the bus would actually arrive), instinctively knowing whether to pay upon boarding (cash, paper ticket or flash pass ready) or later when exiting, after watching the surroundings carefully to know when I had arrived. Some people in some places still travel this way on transit, but Metro has provided lots of better options.

The top 10 Metro improvements begin after the jump.

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Vote Yes on Transportation Proposition 1

Seattle needs more bus service. Prop 1 will deliver it.

Yes for BusesSeattle is booming. According to the latest census forecasts, Seattle is now the fastest-growing large city in America.  Between 2000 and 2014, we added almost 80,000 residents inside the city limits. Judging by all the construction cranes dotting the skyline, we’re nowhere near finished.

Yet despite the population growth, bus service in Seattle hasn’t expanded significantly in years. King County Metro tried twice to expand service over the last 15 years. Each time, unfortunately, an economic recession forced the agency to pull back, leaving service levels basically where they were in the ’90s. This September, Metro was in fact forced to cut service when various post-recession stopgaps finally ran out.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many buses are packed. On the most popular routes, buses are frequently so crowded that they have to leave passengers at the stop. After 7pm, many Seattle buses are infrequent. This makes things difficult for folks who work nights and weekends, or who just want to ride the bus for something other than commuting to work. Meanwhile, volatile tax revenue and years of crisis have diverted staff focus from improving the system.

This November, Seattle residents will have an opportunity to finally address some of the system’s problems instead of play defense. Seattle Transportation Proposition 1 would raise approximately $45m per year inside the city through a sales tax increase and a vehicle license fee, both expiring by 2021. Low-income residents would get a partial rebate on the license fee. This new revenue would translate to about 260,000 hours of new bus service per year if there are no further King County cuts.

Initially, this fall’s Transportation Prop 1 was conceived as yet another last-minute effort to save existing service.  Fortunately, thanks to yet more belt-tightening at the agency and an improving economic climate, Transportation Prop 1 would instead expand service and improve reliability on dozens of Seattle’s core bus routes. More peak trips would be added to several routes, while others would see more service in the evenings and weekends. The legislation contains clear language that prevents Metro from using Seattle money elsewhere in the County.

Prop 1 isn’t perfect. We would prefer a countywide solution, but voters rejected that in April. Unfortunately, the money can only be spent on bus service, not on capital improvements like improving bus stations or adding new bus lanes. You will find no greater advocates for these projects than us, but we recognize that other measures can address these needs, and meanwhile demand for service is large.

A growing city needs a growing transit network. Proposition 1 provides the additional service the bus system needs.

The STB Editorial Board currently consists of Martin H. Duke, Frank Chiachiere, Matthew Johnson, and Brent White.

Please Photograph Transit

This is a guest post.

Black & White of SoDo Station as Central Link Train is About to Arrive

My black & white conversion of a Central Link train approaching SoDo Station

I encourage you to please take photos of transit.  That full or almost full bus you’re riding on?  Get a picture – then post to the Seattle Transit Blog Flickr Group.  It helps lobby politicians for more transit service a lot more than just a quick, polite e-mail (which is always good).  I’m certainly not asking for perfect pictures – just a quick iPod or phone picture will do.

When you see something innovative like Swift Bus Rapid Transit, Seattle Streetcar or a transit operator doing a great job?  Get a few pictures, then post to the Seattle Transit Blog Flickr Group what you got please.

When you see something newsworthy or understand the need to build up stock photography for editorial copy?  Post to the Seattle Transit Blog Flickr Group what you have, please.

When you can, please take a helicopter flight (perhaps using this Groupon as I did) and get some aerial photos involving transit.  Then post to the Seattle Transit Blog Flickr Group what you have, with some comments on what you saw.  Perhaps also add a paragraph about how you think the land use is or isn’t compatible with mass transit plans.

Also I moderate a group called Photoshopped Transit.  That’s for folks like I that like to use mass transit as an opportunity to practice post processing techniques such as black & white conversions, selective saturation, photoshopping logos and the like.  Even if you just use an iPad, iPod or iPhone with the VSCO Cam app adding easy color – that’s good enough for my group.  Not asking for epic artwork here, just some artistic effort.

Why?  Ultimately transit photography can be a non-confrontational way to advocate for transit.  I know many of us in the Seattle Transit Blog community wish away election campaigns and shy away from politicking for a litany of reasons.  Transit photography is a way to campaign without having to play the political games we have to play and play to win.

What is Financial Sustainability for Metro?

This is a guest post.

Kevin Desmond, King County Metro Transit General Manager

Kevin Desmond, King County Metro Transit General Manager

As the County Council deliberates the 2015-2016 budget, one of the most important discussions is how to maintain Metro’s current level of bus service today without increasing the risk of even greater service cuts in the future when the next, inevitable recession hits our region. Here at Metro, our goal is to avoid past experiences in which overly optimistic revenue forecasts failed to materialize and, as a result, we were unable to deliver the services promised to the public.

The topic is hotly debated, including on this blog. We welcome public discussion and ideas for developing a long-term sustainable funding model for Metro. I read Mr. Whitehead’s recent analysis, and while it includes good observations it overlooks two important aspects: the inherent volatility of sales tax revenue, and the disconnect between the formal economic forecast that predicts uninterrupted growth and the well-established cycle that our region experiences a periodic recession.

This is an important and honest debate. We’ve taken major steps over six years to preserve service through innovation and continuous improvement.  The proposed 2015-2016 budget reflects these realized savings and finds new ways to preserve some additional service previously proposed for cuts. For the first time in preparing Metro’s budget, we analyzed historical impacts of mild to severe recessions. Through this analysis, it was determined that a prudent reserve target should be set at levels that would allow us to ride out something in between:  a moderate recession lasting three to four years. The reserve account is aptly named the Revenue Stabilization Reserve and was created by the County Council in 2011 to serve exactly this function of moderating and absorbing the unpredictable swings of our economy. Until now there was insufficient revenue to put into this fund.

Over the longer term, we also want to have a budget and finances that we believe are sustainable. Let’s remember, twice since 2000 Metro has relied on optimistic and ever-growing forecasts of future revenue only to have recessions (the dot-com recession of 2001-02 and the Great Recession of 2008-10) wipe out expected revenue as people stopped spending – causing Metro to scale back promises of added service. (See sales tax volatility chart – which shows recessions in the 1990s, early 2000s and 2008.)

salestaxgrowthUnder county code, Metro must use the independent Office of Economic and Financial Analysis forecast which in its most recent forecast shows uninterrupted sales tax increases from 2011-2024.  Such sustained growth would be without precedent, but Metro accepted these forecasts in the past: in 2000 after the 0.2 percent sales tax measure that partially replaced MVET, and in 2006 with the 0.1 percent sales tax for Transit Now.  The 2015-2016 budget the Executive submitted and that Whitehead refers to also must use this forecast. Therefore the near and mid-term financial balance sheet shows substantial cash in our Revenue Stabilization Reserve (aka rainy day fund).  Readers must remember this is a forecast; we have not collected this money, it exists only on paper. [Read more...]

Technical Difficulties

Regrettably we’ve had a little technical trouble with certain Page 2 posts ending up on the front page for a short while, and therefore going out on twitter, facebook, and RSS without proper editorial scrutiny.

We apologize for this problem and hope it gets better as we get comfortable with the managment interface.