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"Bus pads" turn freeways into busways

Buses running on city streets can get stuck in traffic, move slow as molasses, and bunch up. New, dedicated infrastructure is hard to fund and build. But could we use freeways to provide express bus service?

A "bus pad" in action in San Rafael, California. Photo from Google Street View.

Our freeways provide ready-made, grade-separated, fast infrastructure that could be redeemed for express buses and regular bus service, too. There are three ways to approach the freeway bus system. One is the bus pad, which places the stops along slip lanes at each interchange. Golden Gate Transit (GGT), in the San Francisco Bay Area, uses this system extensively in Marin County.

Another is the bus expressway, which mixes buses with other high-occupancy traffic and places stops either at overpasses or in the median. King County Transit in the Seattle area uses this system. A third way is the center-running bus rapid transit system, which dedicates lanes exclusively to buses.

We'll look at each of these types, but today, let's start with the bus pad. Even though they force buses to take the slow lane, using bus pads results in a service that flies compared to buses on city streets.

Map of bus service along Highway 101 by the author. Click for a larger version.

GGT's system is something of a historical accident. When Highway 101 was being built, someone realized this would lock out those who used to take buses along the old Redwood Highway, which 101 would replace. So engineers added bus-only slip lanes and a bus stop at each exit, giving Marin County the closest thing to bus rapid transit in the Bay Area.

Despite running on a freeway, the buses can be slow. The average speed, excluding time spent on surface streets, rarely peaks above 30 miles per hour. Local buses average 19 miles per hour between Novato and the Spencer Avenue bus pad, a distance of 20 miles.

Skip-stop express buses do the same run at 30 miles per hour, though they top out at 48 miles per hour when traffic is particularly clear. Both locals and express buses spend 7 minutes laying over at transit centers along the route, which cuts a few miles per hour from their average.

A "bus pad" in Corte Madera, California. Photo from Google Street View.

This may not seem too rapid at first, but in the world of public transit this is actually quite speedy. Metro averages 33 miles per hour, and New York's subway only averages 18.6. Compared to the often-miserable speeds of buses on city streets, which rarely top 10 miles per hour, this is rapid transit.

But unlike rapid transit, most of the infrastructure is already built. All one needs is a safe way for a bus to service a bus pad at a preexisting interchange or exit, and a safe way for riders to get to the pad. Diamond interchanges are easiest to service, as a bus just needs to exit the freeway, pick up passengers at the pad, then continue forward to reenter. Others, like cloverleaf interchanges, require a bit more but typically there is enough space to accommodate the bus pad's slip lane and stop.

Bus pads in a diamond interchange. Photo from Google Maps edited by the author.

Though cheap and fast, the bus pad has a number of downsides. Foremost, the passenger has to wait at the edge of a freeway. It's hot, polluted, loud, windy, dry, and terrifically unpleasant. The walk to the bus pad might not be so attractive, either, as freeways are notorious for turning their neighborhoods into moonscapes.

Transfers can be a pain, too. One bus pad in Marin requires a quarter-mile walk through that moonscape and across an overpass to transfer from the freeway to surface streets.

Freeways are not conducive to transit-oriented development, either, which would otherwise be a natural outgrowth of a high-speed rapid bus line running through the city. Though this is a problem bus pads share with other busway designs, the unpleasant and difficult transfers further limit the scope and attractiveness of transit-oriented design.

Bus pads in a cloverleaf interchange. Photo from Google Maps edited by the author.

Finally, buses serving bus pads don't make use of HOV lanes, as they need to stay in the far-right lanes. That means they can still get stuck in traffic and delayed. Shoulder bus-only lanes can help, but it still exposes them to traffic at exits. At commute time, this can be especially frustrating for riders.

One way to limit these problems is to eliminate the slip lane and place the bus stop at the top of the off-ramp. Buses would exit the freeway, service the stop, then jump back on. While this exposes the bus to stoplights, if a bus-only shoulder continues along the exit, the bus could still bypass congestion and serve much more comfortable and accessible stops.

Under this structure, transfers to surface routes could be as close as the adjacent corner. If coupled with a bus-only shoulder that extends along the ramps, buses could bypass the traffic entirely.

Unfortunately, many of DC's freeway interchanges are tortured things, squeezed into odd geometries and designed to allow the most options for exiting vehicles. They may not have space for a slip lane and bus stop, or may not have an easy way for an exiting bus to immediately return to the freeway. For areas with the most potential, such as the Southwest Freeway and I-66, interchanges would need to be completely re-engineered.

Moving the stops to the middle of the freeway while keeping buses mixed with traffic offers a way around that problem. It also allows them to take advantage of high-occupancy lanes, improving reliability and speed. We'll talk about this design, the bus expressway, next time.

David Edmondson is a transportation and urban affairs enthusiast working on his master's in city and regional planning at Cornell University. He blogs about Marin County, California, at The Greater Marin


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[blank] miles?

Otherwise, good piece.

by h st ll on Aug 12, 2013 3:13 pm • linkreport

@h st II

Oops! That should read "20 miles."

by David Edmondson on Aug 12, 2013 3:19 pm • linkreport

This seems like a very unattractive solution for transit riders. I suppose that's the result of having the transit be an afterthought when the freeway was built.

One thing to keep in mind is that bus stops need to come in pairs. And it needs to be fundamentally easy to get between each of the stops in the pair.

If you live in an apartment right on the freeway ramp adjacent to a southbound stop, that's great. You can walk right out your door and get on the bus to San Francisco.

But if the corresponding northbound stop is across 8-lanes of traffic, and involves walking a block north, navigating 3 spirals of a ped bridge going up, crossing the freeway, and then going down 3 spirals off the ped bridge and then walking 2 blocks south to get back to your apartment, then the convenience of the southbound stop is completely wasted.

It doesn't matter how easy it is to get on the bus in the morning. If you can't get off in the evening, you won't take the bus.

This seems to be a solution devised by traffic engineers for transit riders who are already extremely dedicated or who have no other option. New transit riders will likely be hard to come by, if they have to walk down ill-maintained goat paths between freeway off-ramps.

We have to make our transit stops easily accessible and attractive to prospective riders. And putting them in the right places, where TOD exists or can be created is also essential.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 12, 2013 3:34 pm • linkreport

What's a "freeway"?

by George on Aug 12, 2013 3:35 pm • linkreport

Here's a perfect example. The northbound stop at Route 101 and Tamalpais Drive is *only* accessible by crossing a freeway onramp at an *unmarked*, *unlit* crosswalk.

Note, the crossing of the freeway onramp isn't at the top, where it intersects the surface street, it's at the gore, where drivers are accellerating into freeway traffic.

Not only is that stop not accessible, it's a lawsuit waiting to happen. No. This is *NOT* an example of how to speed up buses. It's an example of how *not* to build transit.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 12, 2013 3:45 pm • linkreport

First off, love the diagrammatic map!

I tend to agree that such a solution is trying to make the best of a less than ideal situation. I often take the Z29 to work, and we make a shoulder stop on S/B 29 at Blackburn Road. While it is nice for some folks to have such a quick ride to Silver Spring, I don't envy the crossing they have to navigate as well as waiting along the racetrack that is 29.

I have ridden GGT a couple of times and seemed to recall that some of these seemed to work a little better than others, particularly where the bus pulled off into neighborhood and rather readily pulled back on, similar to the NB Z29 dipping onto the Blackburn Road access ramp.

But as has been said, for every good stop in one direction, there is a similarly bad one in the other.

by A. P. on Aug 12, 2013 4:05 pm • linkreport

I recognize that California is certainly a very different place than DC, so maybe it's better than the alternatives in California, but I can't imagine being able to get behind a system like this in the DC region.

I take the bus - frequently - as well as Metro, and while freeway speeds are certainly higher than speeds on, say, P Street or 14th Street NW - a freeway bus wouldn't get me to the places I'm going, because guess what? There are no freeways in those places.

Is freeway bus service better than no bus service at all? Arguably, yes. (Though pedestrian safety and other issues make me wonder.) But is it something we should aspire to when we have real opportunity to build other, better transit? In my mind, certainly not.

by Aimee Custis on Aug 12, 2013 4:13 pm • linkreport

I would also point out that we already have this "solution" to some degree here.

US 50 in Arlington is freeway-like, and has bus stops on the mainline, as opposed to the access roads.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 12, 2013 4:19 pm • linkreport


No doubt there are problems. GGT doesn't maintain its bus pads well, and Caltrans, California's DOT, doesn't help make its interchanges safe or accessible. The pad at the top of this article has a dirt path to a park and ride where commuters actually cut a hole in the fence. (The lot, by the way, is almost always full on weekdays.)

But poor maintenance isn't an indictment of the concept. If a freeway interchange were built or rebuilt with bus pads in mind, rather than them being added in after the bulk of the engineering, then the problems of access can be ameliorated.

Take the Tiburon Wye, the cloverleaf pad above, which has most of the problems as the one at Tamalpais & 101. When metering lights are installed, the bus pads will be relocated closer to surface streets with direct connections to local service. See the redesign here. (PDF)

by David Edmondson on Aug 12, 2013 4:19 pm • linkreport

This gives me a idea of why not just build an actual station over the highway in the median or shoulder.

Take West Falls Church or Vienna as an example why could we not have something similar but instead of where the trains stop in the station you would have a bus stop and after the station the buses merge with regular traffic or perhaps enter a HOV lane.

Or take a portion of the shoulder both sides and build a overpass or underpass connecting both to the surrounding neighborhoods

by kk on Aug 12, 2013 4:22 pm • linkreport

On the brightside atleast the overpass appears to be a spiral ramp instead of steps so that the disable could cross it unless here in many places where there are bridges with steps on the ends.

by kk on Aug 12, 2013 4:24 pm • linkreport

I agree that this falls into the "better than nothing" category. I'll add that it's usually a better solution than a long detour off the highway to some park and ride that takes the bus 5 minutes just to make 1 stop.

Louisville, Colorado has a pretty good example. The pedestrian bridge across makes a big difference (and adds a couple million to the cost).

by BeyondDC on Aug 12, 2013 4:24 pm • linkreport

I think though we do complain about the ones we have, there are relatively few limited access highways inside the beltway. I'm not super informed but my impression is that commuter and express buses do make use of them they just dont really stop on them. I'm all for bus lanes but I think we'd be better of arguing for them on highways/main roads that provide acceptable pedestrian facilities. Let the cars have the rest of the highways. Perhaps the fact that we have Metro/Marc/VRE etc makes this kind of almost quasi BRT less ideal.

by Alan B. on Aug 12, 2013 4:26 pm • linkreport

But poor maintenance isn't an indictment of the concept. If a freeway interchange were built or rebuilt with bus pads in mind, rather than them being added in after the bulk of the engineering, then the problems of access can be ameliorated.

I think this gets to a discussion of the purposes of transit, though. In my mind, transit is good because it (a) gets me where I want to go without having to drive (I don't have a car) and (b) helps contribute to walkable, people-scaled built environments. You certainly can't say the latter about this kind of bus service, though, even when perfectly maintained.

by Aimee Custis on Aug 12, 2013 4:27 pm • linkreport

What's wrong with this picture?

And in case you can't recognize the stop flag, that's in Arlington.

We can do so much better than this.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 12, 2013 4:27 pm • linkreport

Don't we already have a plethora of buses using the HOV and HOT lanes? There's a whole bunch from Springfield to Tysons. There's a bunch from the Pentagon to Shirlington. There's the FC-395 to the Pentagon. There is the 5A and B30 to Dulles and BWI. And finally, there are a bunch of MTA, Loudoun and PW county buses that bring people from the exurbs to downtown. All along the highway. Seems to work pretty well.

by Jasper on Aug 12, 2013 4:31 pm • linkreport

No wonder people along 101 are clamoring for rail service along the old passenger rail corridor next to the highway.

by MLD on Aug 12, 2013 4:34 pm • linkreport


But few are stopping *on* the highway. Plenty stop on huge arterials that have highway like volumes with stop lights though (looking at you Old Keene Mill Road).

by drumz on Aug 12, 2013 4:39 pm • linkreport

Don't we already have a plethora of buses using the HOV and HOT lanes? There's a whole bunch from Springfield to Tysons. There's a bunch from the Pentagon to Shirlington. There's the FC-395 to the Pentagon. There is the 5A and B30 to Dulles and BWI. And finally, there are a bunch of MTA, Loudoun and PW county buses that bring people from the exurbs to downtown. All along the highway. Seems to work pretty well.

They don't stop ON the highway though.

The issue isn't "buses on the highway," it's buses where the co-located stops are nowhere near each other and the access to the stops is dangerous because the stop is on the highway.

by MLD on Aug 12, 2013 4:40 pm • linkreport

I think this is a series to trying to look comprehensively at all forms of BRT and highway based buses.

Of course in the DC area, with our congestion, on highway buses are that are not in HOV, HOT, or BRT lanes are not going to be rapid - at least not at times most people want to use them. Local buses on streets are just as good, and easier to access. In places where traffic is lighter, this can allow buses to take advantave of highway speeds, with minimal infrastructure costs - but also with lots of constraints and problems.

We do have buses running on highways in mixed traffic - the reverse direction buses on I395 come to mind (the ones that run FROM the pentagon in the AM and TO the Pentagon in the PM) They do not stop on the highway, but only feed to it, like the buses which do use the HOV lanes.

Rte 50 in Arlington definitely well warrent more detailed study for improvement.

by AWalkerIntheCity on Aug 12, 2013 4:43 pm • linkreport

Very good point by Matt Johnson

by JJJJJJ on Aug 12, 2013 4:43 pm • linkreport

One thing to keep in mind is that bus stops need to come in pairs. And it needs to be fundamentally easy to get between each of the stops in the pair.

If you live in an apartment right on the freeway ramp adjacent to a southbound stop, that's great. You can walk right out your door and get on the bus to San Francisco.

It doesn't matter how easy it is to get on the bus in the morning. If you can't get off in the evening, you won't take the bus.

Good points, but there are a finite, certainly very small number of people who are actually in that situation. In most cases, some people are likely to benefit from the location of the bays depending on where they live and where they are coming and going and how close they are to the access points to the bus bays. Some people will lose in the morning and win in the evening, and vice versa.

In this case of the exemplary bus pad with the pedestrian bridge pictured in the blog post, the walk from one bus bay to the other is 0.2 miles -- less than 5 minutes -- which I would guess is not insurmountable for most commuters given that a one-way bus ride from Corte Madera to downtown SF takes over an hour.

by Scoot on Aug 12, 2013 4:47 pm • linkreport

We can do so much better than this.

Yep. If we're calling these pads an improvement, it really should be an indictment of how low we've set the bar.

by Alex B. on Aug 12, 2013 5:04 pm • linkreport

The research is pretty clear that it's hard to make freeway-based bus lines successful. That's different than BRT I guess. Minneapolis does have a freeway BRT with some stations that connect from overpasses. How well it does, I don't know.

by Richard Layman on Aug 12, 2013 7:19 pm • linkreport

It would be better to remove the clover leaves and use a diamond interchange. A diamond interchange has one entry ramp per freeway direction and one exit ramp per freeway direction; left turning traffic entering the freeway queues to cross opposing traffic and enter the freeway using the same ramp opposing traffic uses to enter the freeway. Without the merge points created by clover leaves, the bus pads can be adjacent or even under the overpass and stairs/elevator can provide access to the bus pads. This would minimize bus diversions, bus lights, and create reasonably direct pedestrian access.

by Solution Giver on Aug 12, 2013 7:39 pm • linkreport

@ drumz/MLD:But few are stopping *on* the highway.

Really? Perhaps not on the interstates, because that would be illegal. There are (regrettably) plenty of bus stops on the Fairfax County Parkway and similar roads. Matt pointed out an example on US-50 in Arlington. If you don't want to call those highways, perhaps using the word freeway will make it the same?

by Jasper on Aug 12, 2013 10:26 pm • linkreport

The difference between lots of the highway/parkway stops in the DC region and the bus pad is the extreme lack of connectivity on the DC region's stops. Some of the pads in Marin are quite bad - the ones with paths crossing onramps are foremost in my mind - but at least they have paths, and are adjacent to underpasses or overpasses.

In my mind, the stops that are just a flag sticking out of a square of concrete without any sidewalks or crosswalks are atrocious. Not only are the buses slower than they would be on a freeway but there's literally no connectivity, as opposed to just poor connectivity.

by David Edmondson on Aug 12, 2013 11:16 pm • linkreport

@ David Edmondson: the stops that are just a flag sticking out of a square of concrete without any sidewalks or crosswalks are atrocious.

You are quite right. But there are many bus stops that are even less than that, off the highways. Here's my favorite example in Lorton. Note that not only is there no sidewalk, nor a pedestrian crossing, but also not even a flat area. You are dumped into a bank!

View Larger Map

by Jasper on Aug 13, 2013 7:04 am • linkreport

Transit like this also works well in Marin County (or in San Diego County along the coast) because of the very linear, one-dimensional nature of California development. Ie, it's very easy to run (and get good ridership) on a few narrow corridors.

If you look on a typical map of the Bay Area, for example, there are only several compact corridors of development, which are largely a product of geography (water and mountains) versus the DC area, where there are considerably less bounds to development in a fully radial fashion.

by Jarrett on Aug 13, 2013 9:19 am • linkreport

wow Jasper that is an ADA violation if I've ever seen one...

by Alan B. on Aug 13, 2013 9:38 am • linkreport

You might make the argument that some parts of 50 are similar but it's a road still beset with lights and houses/businesses that front it directly. But those (in WMATA's eyes) are still local buses compared to the express buses that use the HOV lanes to get from the Pentagon to a specific neighborhood.

by drumz on Aug 13, 2013 9:45 am • linkreport

The best example of a "highway" bus stop in DC that I am familiar with is for westbound E route buses on Military Road at 16th Street. Military Road is a divided, limited access highway at that location. The bus stop has a pull-in lane for the bus, a shelter and a paved path down from 16th Street. It is a bit desolate, but well designed.

by Steve Strauss on Aug 13, 2013 9:53 am • linkreport

But few are stopping *on* the highway.

Yeah, I'm not seeing the advantage of stopping on the highway other than it allows you to have more stops. The buses that travel on limited access highways in the DC area like the ones that travel on the DTR and the 5A which travels on 66, stop in places that people actually want to get on/off at (like West Falls Church, Rosslyn, downtown and Dulles Airport).

Buses on highways isn't a bad idea (in fact, a good idea when they travel on HOV/HOT lanes) but they should be stopping at actual destinations, not dumping you off on the shoulder of a highway.

If we're going to spend money on a low cost way to make bus service on highways better, I'm in favor of making limited upgrades/maintenance that allow buses to travel on the shoulder like they do on parts of the DTR.

by Falls Church on Aug 13, 2013 11:18 am • linkreport

Steve Strauss -- and that stop illustrates why this type of bus service generally doesn't work. The stops are pretty far from neighborhood areas. But that particular stop makes sense because it means that the bus can stay on the limited access highway rather than get caught up in local traffic.

It's great for speed, not so much for passenger access.

Ideally we could do this at NY Avenue and North Capitol Street for the 80 bus. (Although I'd install a special structure under the roadway, enclose the stop, and the doors would open only when the bus is stopped. Like an Asian subway station.) I thought that Doug Stallworth told me that the bus was moved to the underpass, which would probably save upwards of 10 minutes depending on the time of day, and would reduce back ups generally because of the size of the bus and that narrow stretch of street.

But I thought I heard people complained and maybe this didn't go through.

by Richard Layman on Aug 13, 2013 11:29 am • linkreport

(my idea for the 80 bus sounds dangerous now that I think about it, because traffic isn't accustomed to stopping on the underpass there.)

by Richard Layman on Aug 13, 2013 11:30 am • linkreport


I would not be shocked if the time savings for using the underpass would be on the level of 10 minutes - the 90/92 buses use that ramp off of North Capitol ever since Dave Thomas Circle went in, and it takes FOREVER for the buses to clear through there.

by MLD on Aug 13, 2013 11:58 am • linkreport

Richard is correct when he stated that WMATA changed the Route 80 to operate through the underpass in the southbound direction on North Capitol Street due to safety concerns on the ramp with right turning vehicles crossing in front of buses at the New York Avenue stop and major traffic delays for them at this location. In the northbound direction, the Route 80 continued to operate up the ramp because we did not have these safety and traffic problems in this direction.

The Routes 90 and 92 use the ramp on North Capitol to detour off of Florida Avenue to access New York Avenue before returning to Florida due to a problem with the turning radius at Florida & 1st Street NE. WMATA is working with DDOT to find a solution to this problem to allow the 90s Line to return to its original routing.

by Douglas Stallworth on Aug 13, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

@ MLD, Douglas Stallworth

If its such a problem at NY Ave and North Capitol why does the P6 & 90/2 continue to use it ? If it was a serious issue no buses would be traveling there at all and they would be rerouted asap.

I see people every morning trying race to the 80 bus stops at Pierce & North Capitol or North Capitol & P going southbound trying to make a bus there is no good reason for why the bus should not go its original route when other buses also travel the same way other than trying to save time and not serve those area.

Now you have people who have to walk long distances to a bus stop anyone that resides on a side street of North Capitol on the NW side or anyone lives in the new buildings on or off of 1st Street NE.

Concerning the 90/92 what they should have done is just switch the routes of the 96 and the 90/2 have the 90/92 travel along Florida make a right on New Jersey they left on NY Ave going straight back to Florida Ave and having the 96 travel on Florida between New Jersey and North Capitol & M to its regular route.

by kk on Aug 13, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport

David E/Matt J/Richard L/et al,

Have any of you looked at how it's done in the Twin Cities? MnDOT has a pretty robust program for upgrading highway/freeway shoulders to allow for bus use during times of congestion. These combined with a more standard (and typical for the Twin Cities) diamond interchange configuration make it easier to put the bus stops where the interchange ramps meet the side street. Or express buses simply continue to follow the shoulder as the case may be.

Regarding Richard's comment on Minneapolis, I'd say that 15,000 daily riders on I-35W south of downtown Minneapolis is a pretty successful endeavor, and is in part why the city and region are upgrading that corridor to something closer to BRT standards, though having HO/T lanes and the new center median station at 46th St helps. There are plans to replace the side platforms at Lake St with a median station.

by Froggie on Aug 14, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

Bus on shoulder operations have proven successful where ever it has been implemented. Impelementation efforts have been well designed and coordinated with DOT and transit staffs. TCRP Report 151 A Guide for Implementing Bus On Shoulders Systems (available free from TCRP website describes applications which include median shoulders and right side shoulders. The Marin GGT operation does not use shoulders although it could benefit from shoulder running from Novato to San Rafael southbound in the mornings. Metro Transit in the Twin Cities has a very successful bus on shoulder operations. Bottom line where their is a will for transit improvements in freeway corridors it happens and succeeds. Dulles access Road in DC Area is a good esxample of potential benefits.

by PeterM on Aug 14, 2013 4:41 pm • linkreport


The Route P6 continues to use the North Capitol Street ramp because this routes has to turn right at New York Avenue. The Routes 90 and 92 have to turn left at New York Avenue due to the fact that they are currently on a detour because these routes could not safely make the right turn from Florida Avenue to 1st Street when this intersection was reconstructed as part of the "Virtual Circle" project.

On the ramp at New York Avenue, the original Route 80 routing took this bus straight across the intersection and cars were using the left lane to cross in front of buses at the stop to make right turns onto New York Avenue which created a safety hazard for the buses. The next southbound stop on North Capitol Street is just south of Pierce Street and is less than 250 feet from where traffic emerges from the underpass.

by Douglas Stallworth on Aug 15, 2013 4:05 pm • linkreport

@ Douglas Stallworth

That 250 feet where the bus stop is does not matter when you take into account where people could coming from.

North Capitol & P and North Capitol & Pierce are where the stops are two were taken away North Capitol and NY Ave and North Capitol & M Street.

If someone is coming from west of North Capitol along M Street, N Street, 1st NW, New Jersey, or any side streets they now have a longer distance to walk considering both of the closest stops North Capitol and NY Ave and North Capitol & M Street are now gone.

Then there are numerous older/eldery people in the area whom now also have to walk longer distances to bus stops.

If there is a problem with people following the law and turning in front of the bus than solve that issue by having police there and actually handing out tickets for crimes. Not just saying f**k and change the route effecting people that had nothing to do with it.

BTW the term detour is used to mean something short the 90/92/93 routes are not on a detour it is a full blown route change as it has been well over a year since it was started and they did not mention a date of return to normal service so it is not a detour. On WMATA's site it list detours and that is not one of them.

by kk on Aug 20, 2013 4:58 pm • linkreport

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