Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for April 2015


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Sorry about the shouty headline: the UVic Press Release uses all caps and my WP editor lacks a ‘change case’ key. This actually came to me from a tweet. You do follow me on twitter don’t you? There’s now a handy widget over there on the top right if you need it. Some of the tweets do get repeated by facebook, but not many of the retweets. And quite a lot of stuff that I see does not get blogged these days, especially since Twitter changed the way retweets are done that now can include commentary. Today, for the first time, I was able to retweet something with the terse comment “Horseshit!” – something, I now realize, I have wanted to do for a long time.

Climate research – and the long list of projects – is all very worthy, but I am afraid I am very much unimpressed. And I am also a bit inspired by a post in the Tyee which sets out the progressive manifesto 0f what needs to be done once we have got rid of Stephen Harper. So while the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) is doing its five year research project here are some things that we need to be doing right away. That is because action on climate change is now urgent. Like The Man said “We don’t have time for a meeting with the Flat Earth Society“. We do actually know what needs to be done and, sadly, these things seem to have slipped through the PICS net.

First note that they are hung up on gee whiz technology. We don’t actually need any of that. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that we know about, familiar technologies and techniques that are held back simply by a combination of out of date policies and inertia. BC Transit was forced to waste money on hydrogen buses (whatever happened to them? I asked BCT but they have yet to reply) when we knew plenty about trolleybuses and extended range hybrid dual powered buses too. Nothing was learned from that five year demonstration project other than it is possible to truck hydrogen across the continent and convince yourself that you are helping the environment.

Transportation and the Built Environment are treated in the research list as two separate programmes. I wonder if the researchers will talk to each other over lunch sometimes? Because we all know that land use and transportation are two sides of the same coin. The best transportation plan is a good land use plan. The best way to save energy from transportation is to cut the need to make motorised trips. Community Energy Planning should have become mandatory fifteen years ago, but Glen Clark shut down the Energy Efficiency Branch of MEMPR – and forgot all about the BC Greenhouse Gas Reduction Program. Most of the advances that we are going to see in the field of transportation will come from a combination of information technology and deregulation. (See Bridj below) There’s a great deal we can do to make better use of what we have but the rules and regs get in the way. Like bike helmets, for instance. By the way did you know that the researchers who did the study that supports BC’s current helmet law have themselves repudiated that study? Protected bike lanes work better to both save lives and encourage bike use – and they are amazingly simple to introduce. As The Lady said, if you want to see change, do it quickly. The Burrard Bridge case is as convincing as any that chaos will not ensue.

Most of the change we need will start happening once we stop subsidizing fossil fuels. Indeed it is quite remarkable how much change is already under way, despite billions of dollars propping up what will soon be a dying industry. The tar sands are already uneconomic, and unnecessary, just as LNG export is a really stupid proposition in the present market. So stop throwing money at oil and gas, and you not only free up some fiscal headroom for sensible policies, but you also give the market the sort of signals it would have got if you had stuck to your guns over carbon tax. Ditch revenue neutral as a policy objective there, keep jacking up the carbon price and spend the proceeds on public transportation – local transit and high speed electric trains for longer distances. Electrify the main corridors straight away (Toronto – Ottawa – Montreal, Edmonton – Calgary) and then start building new high speed railways as cancelling freeway expansions permit. Maybe by then the Americans will have started to catch up with the rest of the world, and we can talk about Vancouver – Seattle – Portland.

What I do see as problematic is that we will probably be better at civilizing the suburbs than getting real change in urban areas, where many more people live in multifamily buildings. It’s pretty easy to put up your own solar panel, and put both a Tesla car and a home battery in your own garage. If you can afford it. It is going to be much harder to get equivalent changes in condos, though co-ops seem to be doing better with things like bike storage. Public housing, of course, has to go back on the agenda. It is not enough to make the existing housing stock more efficient when so much of it is out of range of the middle class, let alone the people who struggle on unlivable wages and such welfare assistance as survives. I do not see any work being done by PICS on environmental justice. But make no mistake, we do have to tackle the issue of the lack of jobs in range of affordable housing in transit deprived areas. We do need to think about how our energy policies can be used to create better employment prospects for our own population rather than simply looking to exploit export markets for barely transformed raw materials. “Researchers will also identify opportunities to substitute timber products for carbon-intensive steel, concrete or plastics used in many sectors, including the building industry.” Start first by banning the export of raw logs to ensure that there will be some local industry to produce these wonderful things.

I am really against spending so much on building technologies – where the potential savings in fossil fuels in BC are limited – when you have no plan to tackle the major user of liquid fuels – personal transportation. Again, we know that old fashioned ideas like trolleybuses, trams and interurbans – even diesel buses, for goodness sake – produce far less ghg per passenger kilometre than single occupant internal combustion engine cars and trucks. So we really do not need any more research on  “the distribution potential of alternative fuels including compressed (CNG), liquefied (LNG) and renewable (RNG) natural gas.” Even if every car could be electric, zero emission at a wave of a magic wand we would still have all the present problems of traffic, road deaths and urban sprawl. There is even less saving in ghg in having a carbon zero or even positive reduction in CO2 building if it is stuck out in the middle of nowhere – and everybody is driving to and from it! On the other hand, increasing bus service frequency and reliability – mostly by paint on the streets – is a well established technique for increasing transit use – and it doesn’t all come from cannibalising walking and cycling. Much of it comes from unpaid chauffeuring.

The article on Bridj really got me thinking. First note that this service is actually delivering something slower in downtown DC than can be achieved on a bike. But then this guy is also wasting time “20 minutes to shower and change” after his ride. Imagine someone from Copenhagen or Amsterdam writing that. Bridj could be a serious challenge to transit – much more than Uber and Lyft which are aimed at the taxi market. Or it could be a very useful supplement, and work much better than Community Shuttle service does in the suburbs. Indeed, when you look at how it works, isn’t that a good description of what HandyDART was supposed to do? And how about we simply abandon (once again) the old “separate but equal” philosophy, and instead of having a segregated service for people with disabilities – which actually does not work very well at all – but have a service which anyone can use. But is cheaper to deliver because you separate out the paying for it from using it. $5 for a ride on a profit making service? If the math is right, that is cheaper than most Community Shuttles, and much less than HandyDART. The driver, of course, would continue to help those who need assistance for door to door movement. As I have always said, in the low density areas (which includes most of Vancouver south of 12th Avenue) we need something better than a bus but cheaper than a taxi. Bridj isn’t going to attract people who can use really good transit. But then we don’t actually have that in much of the region, and it is not at all clear that we will turn out to be ready to pay for more of that yet. Oh, and before I forget, we would also need to sort out a much more equitable transit tariff, based on ability to pay, but that is a subject for another day.

The West Coast Tar Sands Invasion

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I am reproducing below the text of a press release received this morning from The Natural Resources Defense Council and Forest Ethics. It seems to me to be written for the US market, but no doubt there will also be a version seen on Canadian media. The Press Release contains a link to the NRDC web page and from there to 21 page PDF report with 216 citations.   This illustrates what they are concerned about.

West Coast Tar Sands Threat

West Coast Tar Sands Threat

I did not draw this map of course. I would have included the BC/Alaska border, the Chevron refinery in Burnaby and labelled the TransMountain pipeline as a proposed expansion.  

The local opposition is currently being concentrated on the risks of spills in the marine environment, due to recent events in English Bay. The report looks at broader implications. And the list of endorsements includes many familiar logos

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 1.29.34 PM


New Tar Sands Industry Plans Threaten Millions, Putting Hundreds of Communities, Waterways, and Natural Landmarks at Risk

SACRAMENTO (April 28, 2015) – The Pacific coast faces a looming health, climate, and environmental crisis posed by an influx of tar sands fuel from oil interests in Alberta, Canada, according to new analysis released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), NextGen Climate America, ForestEthics, and a coalition of 27 partner organizations. The tar sands industry’s long term goal to triple production will require flooding both Gulf and West Coast heavy crude refineries with tar sands crude in coming decades. The increased transport of tar sands by rail, pipeline, barge, and ocean tankers will threaten the water and air quality of hundreds of communities, heighten the risk of tar sands oil spills and explosions, and reverse decades of public health, energy, and climate successes from California to British Columbia.

“The West Coast is about to fall victim to a tar sands invasion, unless our leaders choose to protect the health and safety of our communities and say no to Big Oil,” said Anthony Swift, Deputy-Director of NRDC’s Canada Project. “New tar sands proposals on the West Coast would increase the region’s carbon emissions and create more than two and a half times the carbon emissions of San Francisco. At a time when the nation is moving toward a clean energy future, there is no reason to welcome the dirtiest oil on the planet into our communities.”

The report, West Coast Tar Sands Invasion (, examines the spike in oil infrastructure, climate pollution, and public health risks that will result from oil industry proposals to expand tar sands refining and export capacity on the West Coast. The report finds that new oil industry proposals would result in the following:

* A greater than tenfold increase the amount of tar sands moving into and through the North American west coast by more than 1.7 million barrels per day

* Increase the region’s carbon pollution by up to 26 million metric tons – the equivalent of adding 5.5 million cars to the road

* Create1,500 miles of new pipelines in British Columbia

* Increase tanker and barge traffic twenty-five fold, from 80 to over 2,000 vessels along the Pacific west coast, on the Salish Sea, and down the Columbia River

* Increase tar sands at West Coast refineries by eight-fold, from 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 800,000 bpd by 2040

* Create a dozen new rail terminals that would significantly increase the region’s crude-by-rail traffic

* Place hundreds of communities, critical waterways and other environmentally-sensitive areas at risk of a tar sands oil spill

* Put fenceline communities and millions of West Coast residents at greater risk than ever to increased toxic air pollution, derailments, explosions, and other accidents that harm public health along with air and water quality

“Across North America people are saying no to the oil industry’s plans to move the world’s dirtiest, most explosive crude to the West Coast,” says Todd Paglia, ForestEthics executive director. “Tar sands threaten the safety of millions of Americans who live in the oil train blast zone, our drinking water supplies, and our coastlines. For oil companies with razor thin margins on this expensive oil, it’s safety last. But we are organized to fight and stop the oil trains, pipelines, and tankers that carry this explosive, toxic, unnecessary crude oil.”

The report also finds the proposed tar sands expansion puts iconic places such as Washington’s San Juan Islands, the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the Sacramento Watershed, and the San Francisco Bay at risk to spills and accidents. Tar sands spills have proven to be more damaging than conventional spills, as heavy tar sands bitumen sinks below the water surface making it even more difficult to contain or recover should a spill occur in one of the hundreds of rivers, streams and critical watersheds across the West Coast vulnerable to expanded tar sands pipeline and rail traffic. A spill could devastate local economies, harm human health, kill critical species, damage First Nation territories, devastate pristine wilderness, and lead to an especially costly and challenging cleanup.

The study had clear recommendations for decision-makers: States should aggressively pursue clean energy strategies that discourage dirty fuels like tar sands while decreasing the region’s dependence on oil, including policies that spur low carbon transportation and energy solutions such as broadened electric vehicle use and the development of clean fuels.

“As a nation we are at a critical juncture. We do not have to expose hard-working Americans to the health and safety risks of oil trains running through the heart of our communities,” said Tom Steyer, President of NextGen Climate America. “Instead, we can choose to support forward-thinking climate policies, like those being proposed by Governor Brown and the legislature here in California. Together we can build a safer, cleaner, healthier and more prosperous energy future – one that does not depend on tar sands and other dirty fossil fuels.”

Additionally, decision-makers must reject new major tar sands infrastructure projects and ensure all proposed fossil fuel infrastructure go through a thorough public health and environmental review process. State and federal regulators should enact safety, spill response, and air pollution standards that ensure the risk of a tar sands spills is eliminated, the public is safeguarded from derailments, and communities are protected from toxic refinery emissions.

“Dirty crude needs to stay in the ground, and we need to protect our communities and our planet from increases in carbon emissions and from these dangerous projects that are being proposed by the oil industry,” said Nile Malloy, Northern California Program Director at Communities for a Better Environment. “Environmental justice communities from Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area to Wilmington in Los Angeles have been put in harm’s way for too long, and we are united to fight against this injustice towards creating meaningful and lasting solutions. We need a just transition away from fossil fuels and aggressive investments in a new thriving inclusive clean energy economy.”

Written by Stephen Rees

April 28, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Posted in energy, Environment

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The Dangers of Fracking

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And come to that the dangers of commenting on press articles on line. Recently I posted something using Disqus: it was in response to an article in a Squamish newspaper about the proposed LNG plant. Oddly, nothing in the article, or in the response to that time spoke to the source of the gas. That will come from an expansion of fracking – the practice of releasing hydrocarbons from “tight formations” which has been expanded very rapidly in North America in recent years. The process creates fractures in the oil and gas bearing rocks by injecting water and mix of chemicals under high pressure.

To be clear, I oppose any expansion of fossil fuel use. There is only one way that we are going to be able to slow down our current headlong rush to global catastrophe and that is to Leave It In The Ground. Most of the reserves of oil, gas and coil must not be extracted and burned. Fortunately, the alternative renewable resources are both economically and environmentally attractive – and are getting cheaper. There is much more employment potential in renewables too, so the previously perceived “choice” between the environment or the economy is now a false dichotomy.

Expansion of LNG export terminals in BC seems increasingly unlikely based on any realistic analysis of the finances but Christy Clark has yet to concede this, and is perfectly capable of continuing to increase the public subsidy of this folly. We are actually paying foreign corporations to exploit this resource, which would otherwise be unmarketable. So if the GHG use of fossil fuels is not persuasive enough, the record of fracking needs to be examined. There are two points I made – the first is that methane is released by fracking in a manner which makes it difficult to capture – or even measure. Since methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 that is cause for caution in itself. But there is also the effect of putting injecting water into the ground. Poisoning wells is the least of it (though the youtube videos of setting kitchen faucets alight seem entertaining). We live in a seismically unstable region. There will be a huge earthquake out underneath the ocean, probably south of Haida Gwai. (I wrote that last sentence on April 23 at 10:45. This morning there was an M6.2 in exactly that location but without a tsunami.) With huge a tsunami and lots of damage. But there is plenty of risk of on shore activity too: it will be smaller but also destructive in nature.

Now of course as soon as my post appeared the on line trolls leapt on it. At least some of them are going to be in the pay of the gas drillers or the proponents of LNG expansion. They are spending a fortune on PR efforts around pipeline and terminal expansion – and no contrary opinions must be allowed to go unchallenged. A Google search for “fracking in bc” turns up nearly a million hits.

I want to draw your attention to Oklahoma. There have been a lot of earthquakes recently in Oklahoma, and the spin doctors have been doing their best to deflect responsibility away from fracking. The state government seemed to have been persuaded. Up until now. The state is now admitting that fracking causes the earthquakes. There is also more coverage of the wider impact from the New York Times.

If you do not want to admit that global warming is a problem that is caused by burning fossil fuels, then I think you are unreachable by reason or argument. But then that process of proof by belief in a political doctrine appears to have taken hold with the Conservative faithful here as it has in the US. You can probably also cheerfully ignore the impact of poisoning the water supply: after all it is unlikely to affect us here and we have been seemingly unconcerned about the state of the water on reserves – especially those impacted by the tar sands. But the risk of increasing earthquakes ought to be something you take seriously here. Even though our present government seems to be quite content to leave schools in Vancouver vulnerable to the inevitable.

POSTSCRIPT Bloomberg is now forecasting that Half of U.S. Fracking Companies Will Be Dead or Sold This Year

Written by Stephen Rees

April 23, 2015 at 10:56 am

James Moore Gets a Surprise Delivery

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A link to this video arrived in my email this morning.

I am not sure that the direct confrontation achieves very much, but the speech by the former commander of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station is telling.


Just to nitpick a bit more, the Marathassa was not a “grain tanker” (whatever that is) and the spill was Bunker C fuel oil, not diluted bitumen which is the most likely export from the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Dilbit sinks. There is also some doubt that 80% of the spill was recovered as there could well be oil residues that sank from the fuel spill – which is why fishing in the inlet has now been banned.

The email was intended to recruit more people to attend direct action training. I am not about to take on that myself, but click here if you would like more information

Written by Stephen Rees

April 23, 2015 at 10:17 am

Posted in Environment, politics

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Time for BC Geothermal Energy?

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I got some content today from the US Geological Service. It is intended as a “feature” and covers all their services, with a bent towards the upcoming Earth Day. Of course, on this blog every day is earth day, and my content needs to be local. One of the things I have been banging on about is geothermal energy. We have all sorts of hot springs around BC, and I have even spent time around Harrison Hot Springs. It occurred to me then that there must be more that can be done with this resource than just providing hot tubs. So here is the USGS piece on geothermal energy.

USGS geothermal

Deep within the Earth’s crust lies an extremely important but underutilized renewable energy resource: geothermal energy. In 2008, the USGS released a national assessment of geothermal power resources, showing more than 550,000 Megawatts–electric power–generating potential. Since then, the USGS has continued to research and assess geothermal power potential all over the country.

“Interest in geothermal energy has rapidly grown. Recent permitting activity has seen dozens of applications for geothermal leases. All of this is based on the fundamental resource assessment efforts of the USGS – without that basic research, the benefits of this renewable energy resource would be achieved much more slowly and at much greater expense.” — William Glassley, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Davis

But of course what we need is information about BC – and that is provided by the BC Sustainable Energy Association though their page on the subject dates from 2005, which suggests to me that it probably needs updating. I did hear that there has been a great deal of drilling done in BC in recent years in pursuit of shale gas, and all that information was lodged with BC’s energy ministry. It contains, of course, lots of data about the availability of geothermal energy which was discovered when looking for something else.

This information is available as maps from the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association

Their conclusions are

Key Findings Summary

  • British Columbia has enormous potential to produce geothermal power.  There is a sufficient potential to meet the entire Provinces’ power demand.
  • There is significant room to improve both the Data Coverage and Confidence of the estimates of British Columbia’s geothermal potential.
  • Priority geothermal exploration areas are identified through the confluence of key surface and subsurface data.

So why aren’t geothermal resources a higher priority – here is a Smog Blog listicle

Meanwhile, our provincial government continues with its quixotic search for an export driven economic bonanza from LNG. And refuses to raise its carbon tax. BC and Alberta being the only two provinces that did not attend the recent provincial “climate change summit“.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 20, 2015 at 9:21 am


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The Guardian is currently running a campaign to try to get the Bill Gates and Wellcome Foundations to divest from fossil fuels. This is running concurrently with other campaigns to try to get institutions to divest including Harvard University. Yesterday the Guardian’s campaign included a tweetstorm, and I got an email from Alan Rusbridger suggesting I write to one of the directors of the Wellcome Trust to explain why I thought divestment is a Good Idea. In fact this idea came from the people who had signed up to the Guardian’s petition who thought that individual letters might be more persuasive than just signatures.

The Guardian is, of course, owned by a Trust, which is why it can be independent. And they have already divested. As have I. Here is some of what I wrote to the Chair of the Wellcome Trust.

As a former non-executive member of the board of BP, I sure you recall when that organisation called itself “Beyond Petroleum”. I wonder if you share the great disappointment many of us felt when that approach was abandoned. In retirement, I have an investment portfolio, managed by professional brokers and owned by one of the big Canadian banks. I have been talking to them about the importance of divestment from fossil fuels. I was particularly concerned that my fund manager seemed completely unaware of the investment opportunities in renewable technologies such as wind and solar power generation. I have also been very much aware that many of the companies my funds were invested in were supporting climate change denial and through the activities of people like the Koch brothers, who are heavily invested in the Alberta tar sands, actively working to frustrate changes to cleaner technologies. I have divested my funds from pipelines and fossil fuel power generation  companies and instructed my brokers to buy stock in cleaner energy companies. I think that this has had the useful effect of changing my broker’s range of reading materials, and not focussing so closely on short term market fluctuations.

In Vancouver we are currently fighting against expansions of port facilities to allow for more export of diluted bitumen. Our provincial government is encouraging the expansion of LNG exports by reducing taxes and royalties in an attempt to make financially dubious investments look more attractive. A recent fuel oil spill in the harbour here has concentrated attention on how ill equipped we would be to deal with a dilbit spill on our coast, especially in view on ongoing cut backs by the Canadian government in our Coast Guard. I am sure your experience of the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster must make you concerned too about the threat that increased oil exploration and exploitation poses to all life on earth. 

I am sure by now you will have read the following paragraph many times. Please take the time to read it again. 

“Your organisations have made a huge contribution to human progress and equality by supporting scientific research and development projects. Yet your investments in fossil fuels are putting this progress at great risk, by undermining your long term ambitions. Climate change poses a real threat to all of us, and it is morally and financially misguided to invest in companies dedicated to finding and burning more oil, gas and coal. Many philanthropic organisations are divesting their endowments from fossil fuels. We ask you to do the same: to commit now to divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years and to immediately freeze any new investments in those companies.”

Thank you for reading my note. I hope the Wellcome Trust will divest from fossil fuels, as so many other academic organisations are doing.

I do not expect that he will change his mind just because he reads my letter. In fact I already have had a response which you can read here. I think it probably reflects the fact that this is an organisation based in the UK, where there is not quite the same direct influence of corporate funding of politics as there is now in the United States thanks to Citizens United. I also do not believe that Shell, BP and Koch Industries (and so on) are run by “fair minded people”. Quite the contrary. I think that they are using the funds invested in their companies to defeat any serious efforts to change the current trajectory of increasing fossil fuel consumption. The possibility of there being some significant shift at the upcoming Paris conference must be alarming them as they hold huge amounts of what will become stranded assets – essentially valueless – if there is a determined move to limit fossil fuel extraction.

I hope that as a reader of this blog you too will consider what you can do to help towards reducing the use of fossil fuels – transit expansion and better land use being two of the most effective. If you are an alumnus, and you get the steady stream of begging emails that I do from your alma mata, perhaps you too can add your voice, or sign up to the Guardian’s campaign. Individually we probably will have an infinitesimal impact: but collectively it will be a mighty roar, that will be hard to ignore. I hope so, for all our sakes.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 17, 2015 at 2:21 pm

12 Great Ideas from Michael Geller

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This talk was given on April 1st. I think it is a great credit to SFU that they have managed to get it onto their youtube channel so quickly. I cannot now recall why I did not attend this talk in person. Perhaps it was because Michael (I may call him, Michael, mayn’t I?) has his own blog and I should not steal his content. I do remember twitting him prior to the talk to make sure that he covered transportation in this talk. He said that he might include something on walking. Well of course a great deal of it is about transportation. We share the same enthusiasms – for pedestrian streets for instance. I started the flickr group Places Without Cars in 2008. And trams.

I warn you in advance that he talks for over an hour and the video does not include any of the discussion which I am sure must have followed. But it is indeed well worth your time.

By the way, Translink did look at increasing the number of ferries across the inlet. Unfortunately the outcome was that few of the possible routes tested offered any time savings – which, of course, is entirely predictable. The reason we don’t have scramble crossings here any more, he said, was that they slow the cars down. Which, of course, is precisely the point. And of course there is a scramble crossing in Steveston. No zebras here

What we do not seem to understand is the reason we think other places work better when we visit them is that as tourists we actually want to slow down and enjoy the place. Unfortunately that is not comprehended by the people who plan our transportation systems who are still hung up on speed as the decisive factor.

There are indeed decorated utility boxes all over Vancouver. I was sure I had pictures of some of them. Maybe I will find them later and add them.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 17, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Transportation