Greater Greater Washington

Metro's 5-second policy adds delay without solving problems

Last week, Metro introduced a new policy: after pulling into the station, train operators must wait 5 seconds before opening the doors. Ostensibly, this would give them time to ensure the train is properly berthed. This policy won't actually solve that problem. But it will delay riders.


Image by the author.

While Metro denies that any specific incident caused the change, the timing suggests Metro is reacting to last month's close call where a Green Line operator opened the train doors before the train had completely pulled into the station.

Metro has had 4 door-opening incidents over the last several months, and several more in the past couple years, the results of both technical glitches and operator errors. This new policy does nothing to actually address these root causes, but will add hours of travel time to Washington area commutes.

Where did this issue come from?

Up until 2008, trains running in automatic mode pulled into the stations, and, when the sensors detected the train was berthed correctly, the doors opened automatically.

But several times early that year, train doors opened on the opposite side of the train from the platform. Metro determined that this problem in the automatic system was happening because of the power upgrades needed for 8-car trains, and shut off the automatic door-opening feature.

Until the problem was fixed, all operators would have to open the doors manually. In most stations, this meant that riders had to wait a couple seconds for the operator to walk across the cab to the left side.

Unfortunately, this created a new problem. Since the operators could manually open the doors, it became possible for them to open the doors before the train was fully in a station. Since Metro operates a mix of 6- and 8-car trains and the automatic system no longer ensures trains are fully berthed, a few operators stopped their 8-car trains at the then-in-use 6-car marker and opened their doors with the 8th car still in the tunnel.

So, in 2009, Metro instituted the "eights to the gate" mnemonic solution. This was supposed to remind the operators of 8-car trains that they had to pull all the way to the front of the platform. Of course, incidents continued to happen.

Then, in the wake of the Fort Totten collision, WMATA changed their policy again, requiring all trains, regardless of length, to pull to the front of the platform. At some stations, this has exacerbated crowding. At Gallery Place, for instance, westbound Red Line trains that are only 6 cars long stop beyond the area where passengers transferring from the Green and Yellow lines come up. This usually leads to a mad dash for the last door of the last car when the train arrives.

And yet, even with that policy, where every train should pull to the head of the platform every time, there have been a few instances where doors open too early. Hence the new policy.

Is it worth the cost?

It's true that this 5-second delay could reduce the chance that an operator will open the doors in the wrong place. But it does not prevent it from happening.

The benefit is questionable. These events, while serious, are very rare. A solution that reduces the chances of this happening is welcome, but this particular solution still depends on the operator thinking clearly. That's the same result the other changes have tried to create, and they haven't solved the problem.

It's great Metro is trying to stop this from happening again. But without a true way to actually prevent the operator from opening the train doors unsafely, riders will just face yet another inconvenient policy change in a few months.

Why is this so bad?

@WMATA asked on Twitter Monday, if this new policy reduces the chance of a potentially life-threatening situation, how can it be a bad thing?

It's important to work hard to make the system safe, but this change doesn't eliminate the danger. Even if it reduces it some, it's important to weigh the amount it reduces an already-unlikely event against the guaranteed cost.

Sure, 5 seconds doesn't sound like much, but it adds up. A Red Line train running from Glenmont to Shady Grove will lose over 2 minutes due to this. And that still might not sound like much, but as we add delay, we risk more train back-ups, and schedule adjustments, meaning riders miss connections.

Last Friday, for example, the extra 20-30 seconds my Red Line trip took made me barely miss my Green Line train at Fort Totten. That meant I had to wait 7 minutes for the next train. On the average, most riders aren't going to barely miss connections they otherwise would have made. But the fact that it becomes a distinct possibility means many will add some time to their schedules.

The daily delay for a single rider may not be a whole lot, but it adds up for the region. With daily weekday boardings around 740,000 and a conservative estimated average trip length of 7 stations, the new policy will waste 26 million seconds, or about 7000 hours of Washingtonians' time every day. This seems like a lot of lost productivity for a measure that doesn't actually prevent the dangerous situation.

What's a real solution?

Solving the problem means making door operations fail-safe, not making operators do more mnemonic exercises at stations.

In the London Underground, for example, if a train, for whatever reason, doesn't detect the platform sensor, the operator can manually open the doors. But to do so, they must push a special override button first, then push a second special button to open the doors. If the train doesn't detect the platform, the operator cannot open the doors using the regular method.

On Metro, the trains have a similar platform detection system. But it's only operable when the doors are in automatic mode. When the doors are in manual, the train's computer systems do not require an override, and the operator can open the doors whenever the train is stationary (whether it's in a station or not).

It won't matter if Metro requires all operators to do a few rounds of heads, fingers, knees, and toes at every station stop before opening the doors. If the doors don't have a safety mechanism in place, it's only a matter of time until a train operator opens the doors in the wrong place again.

Now, Metro may have determined that if trains will soon be returning to automatic operation, that this sort of feature is not required. But no one at the agency has been willing to publicly guess at a date for returning to automatic operation. Besides, some trains will be operated in manual mode from time to time. And regardless, this sort of safety mechanism should be in place.

In June of 2009, Metro's then-spokesperson Steve Taubenkiebel was quoted in the Washington Post about the unsafe door operations: "We wish we had an answer as to why this continues to happen."

Unfortunately, more than three years later, riders still ask the same question. We wish Metro had an answer too. This new rule is certainly not it.

Ultimately, this just punishes riders for the sins of a miniscule number of train operators. And to add insult to injury, the punishment won't even ensure that the crime won't happen again.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

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Working class people need every second they can get. The rising cost of Metro already impacts lower wage earners disproportionally and now they have to wait even longer on the train? Get it together Metro.

by John Muller on Sep 20, 2012 10:24 am • linkreport

Since Metro operates a mix of 6- and 8-car trains and the automatic system no longer ensures trains are fully berthed, a few operators stopped their 8-car trains at the then-in-use 6-car marker and opened their doors with the 8th car still in the tunnel.

I'm sorry, but how dumb do you have to be to do this? It's like getting in a minivan, forgetting that you're not driving a coupe, and only pulling halfway into the garage.

by Corey on Sep 20, 2012 10:28 am • linkreport

@ Matt:Last Friday, for example, the extra 20-30 seconds my Red Line trip took made me barely miss my Green Line train at Fort Totten. That meant I had to wait 7 minutes for the next train.

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] Metro does not run on a tight Japanese schedule where drivers get fired if they're 30 seconds late. Metro runs a relatively loose schedule. You can not complain about 30 seconds, even if you multiply it by a large number.

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Jasper on Sep 20, 2012 10:28 am • linkreport

@Jasper

This impacts working class people chasing every nickel as equally as it does "nerds."

by John Muller on Sep 20, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

Metro's dumb policy also shows the limits of management-by-spreadsheet. Losing 2 minutes across an end-to-end trip on the Red Line is a drop in the bucket compared to the constant broken-down trains, electrical outages, etc that plague the system.

But that 5 seconds is bizarrely blood-boiling. By the time I've reached my destination I'm so ready to get the hell off the train that waiting five seconds because of some dumb policy makes me want to rage. I seriously can't be alone on this.

The problem isn't the inefficiency, it's the passenger-unfriendly result.

by Corey on Sep 20, 2012 10:35 am • linkreport

This is the latest in a long line of WMATA slowing down the whole system, causing more missed connectins and late arrivals. Does anyone remember back in the 1990s, when there was abunch of escalator accidents? In response, Metro slowed down the speed of the escalators. They never raised the speed of the escalators back to normal, so now the slow (or broken) escalators are the new normal.
Also, a few years ago the faregates became slower to read SmarTrip cards. Remember that? There are bad enough backups at eth faregates in Columbia Heights to exit every day, but adding a second or so to each tap of the card makes the problem worse.
Now, this stupid 5 second rule is making things worse again. They really need to restore automatic control asap, too, to eliminate the additional time of jerking back and forth at each station under manual control. Trains need to open their doors the moment they are fully stopped, everyone needs to hustle out, and allow those boarding to jam on. Move, people! Open, stupid doors! the 5 second delay is psychologically very annoying and stressful to already beleaguered Metro riders.
Thank god I usually bike to work now, haha!

by MrTinDC on Sep 20, 2012 10:41 am • linkreport

Jasper: Sure, seven minutes isn't too bad of a wait. But what if it was 12 minutes? 20 minutes? What if you miss your twice-an-hour bus?

Corey: Agreed. It's ridiculously frustrating as a passenger. How can so many other cities figure this out but Metro can not?

by Colleen on Sep 20, 2012 10:44 am • linkreport

I'm agreed with Corey on this point: 5 seconds is a (mini) eternity once you've pulled into the station and are waiting to get out.

by Elle on Sep 20, 2012 10:45 am • linkreport

wouldn't an extra five seconds be cancelled out by the decrease in time it takes for people to get off the train? the five seconds allow people to get from the center of the car to the door before the door opens. This allows them to leave quickly and in a group and those waiting to board can get on faster.

by cmc on Sep 20, 2012 10:47 am • linkreport

The five seconds that finally broke the GGW (pro-WMATA) back.

by charlie on Sep 20, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

cmc, that also gives the people on the platform five more seconds to crowd the doors.

by Colleen on Sep 20, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

Metro needs to hire better people who know what the heck they are doing rather than enact inane solutions to what should be non existent problems. Based on things I have read the culture there is one that does not promote excellence.

Also, why do the operators tick forward a few feet every 10 seconds or so while waiting for a station to clear? Is it not possible to sit and wait until they get the green light? It is nauseating for seemingly no good reason.

by NikolasM on Sep 20, 2012 10:54 am • linkreport

Also, Metro operators need lessons in driving the trains because the smell of riding the brakes till they burn has been incessant all summer.

by NikolasM on Sep 20, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

@Colleen,
True, but they'll always crowd the doors. From my experience, it seems that people who are slowed trying to get to the door and come out towards the end of the exodus, directly impact those trying to get on and cause everyone to slow down for a couple seconds.

by cmc on Sep 20, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

Now in addition to "Fare Gate Crotch Shot" there's "Door Delay Face Smash".

by Bossi on Sep 20, 2012 11:00 am • linkreport

Agree with everyone saying the biggest problem with the 5 seconds is the added stress when you get on/off. You stand at the door at full attention, ready to make a decisive manuveur to get on/off, the wait... Getting on your mark, then getting set but waiting for the "go" signal is not fun.

by Falls Church on Sep 20, 2012 11:11 am • linkreport

NY has a black and white striped signs that the conductor must look up at and point to before opening the doors. Seems like a pretty easy, low-tech solution to me. In DC, they could put a marker on the ground of the subway platform that the operator must be lined up to.

by Ron on Sep 20, 2012 11:12 am • linkreport

I still don't understand why the wait 5 seconds policy is better than a don't open the doors till you have your head out the window policy. Wouldn't the latter be easier to "police" than the former?
I can't help but feel that the takeaway here is that Metro is making policies that seem to suggest their issue is an inability to get operators to follow directions.

by Thaps on Sep 20, 2012 11:20 am • linkreport

Or just do it like they do in Berlin. All trains pull up to the end of the platform and there is a sign indicating where the shorter trains end so pax can position themselves accordingly.

Also, in Berlin the doors are pushbutton-activated (to save on heating/AC costs) and can be opened 1-2 seconds before the train comes to a complete stop. I'm sure that violates all kinds of FTA and accessibility regulations here, though.

by Phil on Sep 20, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

Reminds me of an old quote I saw once - "You can make anything foolproof, but you can't make it damnfool-proof."

And +1 on the folks recommending putting a sign where the back of a six car train would be on station platforms, since it should ALWAYS BE IN THE SAME PLACE. Even duct tape on the floor would do the job here - regulars would get the idea, then the tourists would just follow them, but that would require Sarles to care about customer service.

by Joe in SS on Sep 20, 2012 11:32 am • linkreport

I'm not a frequent METRO rider, but I rode it the other evening, I think the next day after the policy started. My operator in to town from SS did not follow the new rules, as it was clearly more annoying on my return home later in the evening with a train operator who did. Is there someone actually policing the new policy?

by Gull on Sep 20, 2012 11:35 am • linkreport

I'm just curious how the 5-second rule works. Do operators say "one Mississippi, two Mississippi," or is there a clock, or what?

by M.V. Jantzen on Sep 20, 2012 11:42 am • linkreport

@Phil and @Joe - the problem with the six-car trains pulling up to the front of the platform, at least at Gallery Place, is not that people don't know where the train will end. It's that almost everyone trying to access the train is coming from the opposite end of the platform. This includes people transferring from Green or Yellow, as well as people accessing the station from two of the three entrances. It results in a complete traffic jam when a train comes in and people are rushing to get on it from one of those places.

I'm a staunch Metro supporter, but the further they move away from automatic operations, the worse the system is. At this point, it seems they are moving completely in the wrong direction.

by Laura on Sep 20, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

I'm worried that the 5 second wait might have a 'butterfly wings' effect and drive Congress over the fiscal cliff because someone missed a vote.

by kob on Sep 20, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

This reminds me of Remy's "On The Metro" rap: "we sent a man to the moon, brought him back a week later, much faster than it takes (WMATA) to fix an escalator..."

Transit agencies that take on advanced technologies MUST be able to fix and maintain them. If the automated controls kept doors opening on the wrong side of trains, then staff and vehicle vendor (Alstom?) engineers should have put together a team to diagnose the problem and fix it.

The number of out-of-service escalators at Metro stations over the last several years was an indicator that capital maintenance wasn't a priority. Capital failures eventually lead to expensive labor fixes, some of which, like this one, have bad results for passengers.

Maintenance isn't sexy, but it's absolutely critical. If the WMATA Board can't see why they should throw money and time at getting the automated door fixed, they should at least do a CBA to determine how much more expensive it is to have all the train runs be 5 seconds per station longer.

by CityBeautiful21 on Sep 20, 2012 12:01 pm • linkreport

Yeah, well for WaPo I guess this will just be another argument in favor of goats, at least until WMAGA comes out with some new regs: wait until the goat has come to a complete stop, wait 5 seconds, then jump out of the cart.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-modest-proposal-dump-metro-get-goats/2012/09/19/cf78c714-026e-11e2-8102-ebee9c66e190_story.html

I guess I'll just use this new, 5-second time tax to wait until after the train has stopped before I get up from my seat. The North Carolinian in me thinks this will be a healthy moment of pause; the Washingtonian in me will have a heart attack thinking about all the memos that I'll miss writing during the minute I just lost to delay and disorder.

by Steven Harrell on Sep 20, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

At Gallery Place, for instance, westbound Red Line trains that are only 6 cars long stop beyond the area where passengers transferring from the Green and Yellow lines come up. This usually leads to a mad dash for the last door of the last car when the train arrives.

And yet Metro still will not post a sign (or an employee) telling people not to stand there.

by Mike on Sep 20, 2012 12:16 pm • linkreport

I always thought the 5-second rule was used exclusively with food. What germs are we going to get from passing through metro doors? My vote: the 5-second rule should go the way of the dodo!

by Kiss It Clean on Sep 20, 2012 12:42 pm • linkreport

I thought this was the reason trains now pulled all the way to the front of the platform...? WMATA should reprimand operators who open the doors early, not institute an across-the-board bad policy. Five seconds seems like a short amount of time to those working on spreadsheets over at the Jackson Graham building, but to us riders it adds unnecessary delay to our already busy days.

@John Muller: Completely agree with your point on working-class riders - some can get docked pay for being just a minute late to their jobs. Very inconsiderate of WMATA.

by John Marzabadi on Sep 20, 2012 1:16 pm • linkreport

The new policy would add five seconds at each stop if the doors currently opened the instant the train stopped, every time. I don't think that's the case. I'm usually waiting at the door when the train pulls into my stop, and it seems to me that it usually takes several seconds, perhaps five, before the doors open. If an operator has been opening the door after four seconds, and now it's five, it will add a second.

by Joe Chapline on Sep 20, 2012 1:26 pm • linkreport

I think the comment about barely missing the train do to this policy are probably a bit misleading.

All trains on all lines are following the policy, at least as far as I know. Trains on different lines stop with similar frequencies. Take away the 5 seconds at each stop from both your train and your connecting train, and you still miss your connection by about the same amount.

So really, the net impact on your commute should just be calculated as 5 seconds times the number of stations you transit (and perhaps double at the station where you connect).

by Zach on Sep 20, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

@Joe Chapline:
It's an additional 5 seconds. The operator must wait 5 seconds at the window before opening the doors.

So the train stops. The operator gets up and walks across the cab. At the window, hands at their sides, the operator waits 5 seconds, then opens the doors.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 20, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

@Zach:
I take two trains and a bus on my daily commute. A delay on the Red Line that makes me miss the Green Line increases the chance that I miss the bus.

Saying, well it doesn't matter that your Red Line commute will take longer now because your Green Line commute will also take longer does not solve the problem. The problem is my commute takes longer.

The real point is that it's infuriating to riders. They may know intellectually that they wouldn't have just missed the Green Line if the Green Line hadn't also been waiting 5 seconds, but on the basic level, what they know is, if the damn operator had opened the doors earlier, they wouldn't have to wait 6-12 minutes for the next train.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 20, 2012 1:38 pm • linkreport

Some of the train operators seem unable to account for the fact it takes them several seconds just to get over to the left side of the cab to open the doors. So if it takes you 5 seconds to move to the left side, don't waste more time counting to 5. The required 5 seconds have already elapsed! Suddenly I'm finding myself waiting at the doors for longer than 10 seconds, which can vary longer due to some train operators counting to 5 more slowly than others.

by Aaron on Sep 20, 2012 1:56 pm • linkreport

It seems like every other day I read about some new policy like this or some disaster of a commute foisted on the region. I've been in the area long enough to remember what metro used to be like. It was all these little things that drove me back to driving. I feel guilty about it and miss the time I had to read but I don't miss all the problems, the added time or the expense (yes it's more expensive in my case). I want to see metro get its act together and be successful but I've lost hope in that at this point.

by Craig on Sep 20, 2012 2:02 pm • linkreport

Such a difference from the Paris Metro, where the riders can open the doors themselves even before the train has come to a complete stop.

They don't seem to be killing themselves.

by Michael Cunningham on Sep 20, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

Last Friday, for example, the extra 20-30 seconds my Red Line trip took made me barely miss my Green Line train at Fort Totten. That meant I had to wait 7 minutes for the next train

Wow. It's really quite silly to attribute people missing their transfers to this new policy, as transfers are frequently missed for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with this policy or really any formal policy WMATA implements, for instance, being stuck behind slow walkers, temporarily losing one's sense of direction in a station, for being stuck in the middle a large group of people emptying out of a train, and so forth.

This policy will cause some people to miss their transfers and some people to actually make their transfers due to the door delays (and other delays) on the line to which they are transferring.

This blog never ceases to amaze for some of the "interesting" statements it publishes.

by Scoot on Sep 20, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

Scoot,

Unless you get stuck in a crush train, it is easily possible to position yourself to get out and over to a transfer quite quickly. I will give him the benefit of the doubt that it wasn't a stuck behind other trains or slow tourists scenario.

by NikolasM on Sep 20, 2012 2:45 pm • linkreport

@Mike, two things:

1. That space is used when an eight-car train services the station (and is invaluable under that circumstance), so telling people not to stand there wouldn't necessarily be correct.

2. Even if it were, the vash majority of the crush doesn't come from people waiting at that end of the platform. The way the station is designed (poorly), Red Line passengers going to Grosvenor or Shady Grove who are either coming from the Green and Yellow Lines or all but one of the station entrances are physically bottlenecked on the Red Line platform, while passengers getting off the Red Line to transfer to Green or Yellow or leave the station via all but the westernmost exit must simultaneously traverse that same bottleneck in the opposite direction. The space is inadequate to handle one of those crowds, never mind both. It's the single busiest space in the entire station, and also the narrowest.

If WMATA were smart, it would figure some way to ensure that Red Line trains to Shady Grove and Grosvenor only pull up far enough so that the end of the train is at the end of the platform, since the last car length of the platform is reachable from the Green Line, Yellow Line, and eastern entrances without passing through the bottleneck. If that's too hard, they could only run eight car trains to Shady Grove during rush hour, since it's the people who are going past Grosvenor and can't wait for the "next" train who are most aggressive about making the transfer.

by cminus on Sep 20, 2012 3:04 pm • linkreport

This, like so many of Metro's problems, stems from the complete lack of accountability at all levels of WMATA. Employees who know that they won't be punished for misconduct (or rewarded for going above and beyond) tend not to care about their performance resulting in lazy, sloppy errors like opening the doors on the wrong side or not knowing the length of the train they are operating. I bet that instituting severe and automatic disciplinary procedures would almost eliminate errors like this very quickly. Given the severity of the safety hazard involved I think something on the order of 1st offense - one week suspension without pay and mandatory safety retraining, 2nd offense - 6 week suspension without pay and additional retraining, 3rd offense - termination of employment would be appropriate.

by Jacob on Sep 20, 2012 3:56 pm • linkreport

@Jacob:
The current penalties for this are even more strict than you suggest:
1st offense: Operators are suspended for 12 days without pay. 2nd offense: disqualified from operating a train for 18 months.
3rd offense: operator is fired.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 20, 2012 4:03 pm • linkreport

@Matt:

Thanks for the info, I didn't know that but I do wonder how often/consistently they are enforced. I can't find the link at the moment but I recall reading an article not too long ago showing that an appalling percentage of fired WMATA employees end up being reinstated with backpay because management doesn't follow its own rules regarding properly documenting the cause for termination.

by Jacob on Sep 20, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

Like the Paris and Berlin systems, Montreal's subway also has doors that open before the train has fully stopped. Everyone moves quickly and I've never heard of any injuries.

Comment regarding WMATA's lack of accountability: spot-on. They don't care and no one (neither riders nor government) is willing or able to make them care. The system's getting worse.

by CP on Sep 20, 2012 5:49 pm • linkreport

Metro, under better management, could once operate 30 trains/hour - one train every 2:00 minutes.

And they once did this with 98% on-time performance !

Now a terrible 90% of Peak trains are on-time, and they cannot run more than 27 trains/hour. This new rule will drop that to 26 or 25 trains/hour.

This is one more step in degrading the value and utility of one of Washington's greatest assets.

Bus managers are in charge of rail operations at WMATA.

This is almost as bad as WMATA policy trying to shift passengers from rail (18 cents subsidy/pax-mile) to bus ($1.12 subsidy/pax-mile).

by AlanfromBigEasy on Sep 21, 2012 6:50 am • linkreport

So they are making worse what has been an annoyance for years - some drivers not opening doors until they get out of their seat and look out the window. A much simpler solution to this business is to have all trains always stop at the end of the station, like in many cities. And put up mirrors or cameras so the drivers can see the platform and side of the train without getting up.

by Dan Gamber on Sep 21, 2012 9:50 am • linkreport

This is SO ANNOYING!! I hate it when trains arrive at the station, sit there, and don't open their damn doors. It is awful for the people stuck inside, at the damn door, waiting for it to just OPEN so they can get to work. STUPID STUPID STUPID IDEA METRO!!!!

by Red line rider on Sep 23, 2012 6:53 pm • linkreport

Having experienced the new 5 second rule over the weekend, I have to agree that it is just long enough to be annoying. A 3 or 4 second delay to open the doors would not be that noticeable. But 5 seconds is long enough to start counting: 1, 2, 3, 4, ... oh come on, open the door!

Is the reason for 5 seconds is that it is a handy round number? Is management worried that if they said four seconds, that train operators might sometime open the door in 2 or 3 seconds after coming to a stop?

by AlanF on Sep 23, 2012 11:26 pm • linkreport

Wow, this is unbelievably stupid. This delay will cause more crowding, which will increase dwell time, which will cause more crowding...

Just rode the London Underground for the first time. It is amazing. Doors begin to open just before the train comes to a complete stop, and escalators move at a respectable clip.

The sooner competent computers resume operating these trains, the better.

by Matthias on Sep 24, 2012 11:52 am • linkreport

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