Thursday, 2 March 2017

A Cheshire epiphany, cheap driving - and why Brexit means no respite from clogged roads

It’s the kind of scene that’s probably familiar to anyone who’s tried recently cycling in the large swathes of the UK where the motor car is the dominant transport mode. On Sunday, February 12, I tried to cycle a short distance along the A548 road on the outskirts of Chester, the kind of road that a couple of decades ago on a Sunday probably wouldn’t have had enough motor traffic to feel seriously intimidating. After only a few hundred metres, having suffered a succession of high-speed, close passes, I felt forced to retreat to a cycle path I’d spotted on the far side of the road. But, once I’d dismounted to cross, I found myself stranded for several minutes as a stream of high-speed vehicles raced past me.
A car speeds down a lane in rural Cheshire: an increasingly
common sight as fuel duty tips the scales in favour
of travel by car

It’s a scene that’s growing steadily more common. Provisional figures show there was more traffic in 2016 on Great Britain’s roads than in any previous year and that traffic volumes rose 1.2 per cent on 2015. The rise is all the more impressive for occurring against a backdrop of falls or only slight rises in traffic volumes in London, much the biggest city. There are indications wherever one looks that steady falls in the price of fuel, vehicles’ improving fuel economy and a series of other cuts in the price of driving are pushing ever-greater numbers of motor vehicles onto the country’s roads.

Yet I’m just as struck by the poverty of the debate about how to tackle this crisis as I am by the sheer unpleasantness of the conditions. Whereas the UK a decade ago was engaged in an earnest - albeit ultimately unproductive - debate about how to charge for road use, there is currently no serious debate about what to do. It has become expected at each budget or autumn statement that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will continue the freeze on fuel duty, even though it has contributed to an 18.9 per cent decline in average petrol prices over the last three years. I have heard little debate about the policy challenges presented by the exemption of a growing proportion of the UK’s car fleet from vehicle excise duty.

It’s a fair commentary on the intellectual vacuity of the current discourse on the subject that one of the main problems Chris Grayling, transport secretary, identified as a challenge for the UK’s road system in an interview in December was “excessive” use of speed bumps. This is the rhetoric one should expect in the immature, early stages of a government, when ministers are caught up in the simplistic solutions they dreamed up while still in opposition. By their second terms, most governments have started to recognise unpleasant, underlying realities and begun to tackle them. It seems clear to me that the abundance of cheap leasing finance is contributing to the misery by making it ever cheaper for drivers to get hold of very large and very powerful cars, whose effect on other road users is particularly intimidating.
Rush hour traffic in central Birmingham, one of the UK's
most car-dependent cities: a result of badly-positioned
speed bumps, presumably

As long as the problems go unaddressed, however, roads in most of the UK will continue to clog up with cars, efforts to encourage cycling and public transport will grow steadily more fruitless and the actions needed to redress the balance will grow ever more extreme.

At the heart of the debate is the question of what one thinks it means to let motoring get steadily cheaper. There is an argument that it’s perverse to argue on principle that any item - especially one that’s indispensable to many people’s daily lives - should be more expensive. I’ve certainly heard passionate arguments from some transport economists that it’s just that motorists should benefit from recent years’ undoubted rapid improvements in vehicles’ fuel economy. It’s also clear that in the UK - unlike the US - taxes on motorists cover the direct costs of building and maintaining the road network many times over. That prompts many people to argue that any extra tax take from drivers represents an unjustified extra tax burden to which the government is right to object.

But it’s impossible to miss the effects of allowing the steady fall in rates. While traffic levels in central London continued to fall in the last quarter of last year, for example, overall traffic volumes on major roads rose by 1 per cent year-on-year. To judge by my experience of dodging speeding vehicles haring down back streets, the rise on minor roads in outer London must be far higher. Minor roads in rural areas are also becoming increasingly miserable to use outside a motor vehicle. Bus travel is falling in many parts of the UK as growing volumes of cars clog the roads, getting in buses’ way. Traffic growth on the railways - where ticket prices mostly go up by at least the inflation rate - has slowed down sharply. As long as fuel duty is frozen, transport policy will remain hostage to the growing advantages enjoyed by cars.

Space allocation in Glasgow, which faces worsening
congestion. I'm sceptical bike paths are the main cause in
cities like this.
It’s even more alarming that there’s so little recognition of what’s driving the increasing congestion in a lot of the UK. When he was asked about the issue in a recent interview with the Evening Standard, Chris Grayling immediately started talking about the poor design of some bike lanes in London, suggesting that the issue in most of the country was the shrinking capacity of the road network, not the growing volume of traffic. While there’s clear evidence that new bike facilities have contributed to the growing congestion problem in central London, it’s equally obvious that the paltry facilities provided for cycling in most of the country take up nothing like enough space to have seriously affected road capacity. Road use is responding to price signals precisely as conventional economics might predict it would.

The action in central London has at least had some of the intended effect. Cycling levels in central London in the October to December quarter were up 5.4 per cent year-on-year, while motor traffic fell again, by 3.5 per cent.

It is also, meanwhile, far from clear that placing a higher tax burden on drivers would be as unjust as opponents typically suggest. There is a wide range of estimates of whether the annual tax take from driving covers the full external costs of motoring - most of which come from congestion. Even the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a respected thinktank, failed to make a clear judgement on the question in a report last February that called the present fuel duty regime “a mess”. But there was a consensus among economists several years ago, before recent years’ freezes, that the tax take was probably falling just short of covering the full costs. The steady falls since in fuel prices, improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency and growing exemptions from vehicle excise duty must all have made the situation worse.
London's policies have at least shifted the central London
balance towards cyclists - even if this driver failed
to understand it.

I had particular cause to rue the changes ten days after my epiphany near Chester when my daughter announced that she and her friend planned that day, for the first time, to ride their bikes the 3.4 miles to school in Dulwich. While the outbound journey, which I rode with them against rush-hour traffic, was relatively calm, I found myself repeatedly buzzed even on quiet streets on the way back by high volumes of fast-moving vehicles. If current road conditions left even me, a hardened and committed cyclist, a little shaken and worried about my daughter’s safety, I realised, it was small wonder that she was so unusual in her choice of transport to school.

Yet there’s no mystery about what could be done to tackle these issues. It has been well known for years that fuel duty was bound to do a steadily worse job of controlling congestion as vehicles became more fuel-efficient and started to rely on untaxed power sources such as electricity. Both Conservative and Labour governments have recognised in their later terms in office that a system that charges drivers according to where they drive and the time of day is the only realistic answer to the challenges of charging for road use. In a rational world, the UK’s national transport policy debate wouldn’t revolve around speed bumps and the impact of desultory cycle facilities but around the details of the road-charging system that was inevitably on its way. Policy could move on to managing traffic, rather than falling victim to the inevitable effects of surrendering to it.
An electric, autonomous pod vehicle at Heathrow Airport:
current policies take no account of how roads will be funded
when more vehicles start to resemble this one

But there is, I think, a powerful reason why rational policy considerations are having an even harder time than normal asserting themselves. During the late years of the 1979 to 1997 Conservative government, there had been more than a decade of steady policy development that had made it clear the simple answers were not going to work. Much the same goes for the later years of the 1997 to 2010 Labour government. In contemporary British politics, by contrast, every policy calculation is subservient to the effort to mitigate the unnecessary damage of pulling out of the European Union. I sense the distraction of dealing with the distraction of an incompetent, unpredictable president is having a similar effect in the United States.

The effects of that policy stasis are visible in far more places than beside the A548. Long years of declines in road deaths have halted or started to reverse. Pollution is growing worse. The pleasure of a quiet bike ride along a winding country lane is increasingly interrupted by the speeding of vehicles taking the route their navigation app tells them will be least congested. It is hard in many parts of the UK to avoid the feeling that the country is being slowly strangled by this surrender to the motor car. I’m unlikely in the immediate future to have much respite from worrying about the riding conditions for my daughter or the many others suffering the effects of current miserable, directionless policies.

19 comments:

  1. My local council in Spain has recently pacified a notoriously fast 10km stretch of narrow country road by simply painting a continuous line down the middle. Although the road is as straight as an arrow, all overtaking is now prohibited (except bicycles). The measure was very unpopular with local residents, but the road is now much safer for local wildlife (and cyclists).

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    1. John,

      Thanks for the comment and I'm glad your local council has taken a positive step. I guess the key question now is whether the rules are enforced and people continue to follow them or it becomes one of those places where people slowly realise it's no big deal to ignore the law. I hope, obviously, that it's the former.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. "there’s clear evidence that new bike facilities have contributed to the growing congestion problem in central London" - Could you share this clear evidence of how new bike facilities on 2% of roads have contributed to congestion?

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    1. Rangjan,

      If you read my last two blogposts, I've gone into this issue in considerable detail, looking at points including the substantial increases in congestion in central London at the times that the superhighways went in, despite falls in traffic volumes, and the well-documented substantial increases in journey times on the roads parallel to the superhighways. I don't get into the 2 per cent of roads thing but I think we can all recognise how disingenuous it is, can't we? They're on 2 per cent of London's roads, yes. But doesn't it make quite a bit of a difference that they're on two of the few river crossings in the congestion charge zone and that the east-west superhighway disrupts traffic flow over two others? I know no-one wants to face up to these facts and I know it's become received wisdom that this somehow magically isn't happening. But I've laid out the evidence in some detail in the last two blogposts.

      I should add that, having wasted a huge amount of time debating this point after the last two blogposts, I'm not going to get into this issue again now. I know lots of my fellow cyclists don't want to follow the evidence on this but I'm afraid the data are extremely clear, just as they're clear on what's causing congestion elsewhere in the UK.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. Great post, especially calling out the current government's lack of thought and action on tackling congestion. They are going to have their hands so full dealing with Brexit that I'm not hopeful that will change much in the next few years. I think there is no chance of Phillip Hammond announcing a fuel duty rise next week, not least because of the backlash created by the recent business rate announcement. Personally, I only think we will get a grown up approach to transport planning if the business community starts to put the pressure on as a result of concerns around Brexit and its economic impact. Congestion is a major cost to business, particularly for employers who rely on getting large numbers of people into offices in city and town centres. I wouldn't be surprised if this government followed Trump's lead and used good old fashioned pump priming through infrastructure investment to stimulate the economy, over and above HS2 and the whole Northern Powerhouse idea. There is an opportunity to influence how that is implemented so we don't go down the predict and provide route that simply leads to new roads filled with vehicles, and it is big business that government will listen to in this area.

    BTW, on the whole argument around cycle lanes in London causing congestion, it is a real sign of the lack of confidence us cycling advocates have that we feel the need to deny any downside to what we are advocating.

    Cheers
    Peter

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    1. Peter,

      Thank you so much for your comment. As you can imagine, I share your concern about the prospects for sensible policy. I'm not confident, either, that business will start lobbying for sensible policy. Some businesses in London have lobbied recently for removal of the congestion charge, which would make the situation far worse. A positive change will require businesses to realise that a solution has to entail more than just the lowest costs possible.

      On the infrastructure point, I don't think it's bad for the UK to build more infrastructure. I don't even necessarily think roads would be a disaster in some places. But there has to be a rational pricing mechanism. At present, the cost of road use is clearly not high enough in some very congested areas, so it's likely, as you say, that any new road capacity would fill up quickly. It's vital to start charging for any new road capacity, to ensure it's rationally used.

      Finally, I could nearly weep at your comment about the cycle lanes and congestion. There is precisely a lack of self-confidence about this debate and also a damaging defensiveness. The data are very clear on what's going on and it's vital when discussing it to start dealing with reality, not the situation as people wish it were. The current tactics are, apart from anything else, profoundly irritating for many people in senior positions in the mayor's office and Transport for London. Many of them support the building of cycle superhighways. But they see the statistics and know they've contributed to congestion. It does cycle campaigners no good to go along and start the conversation by insisting that a phenomenon that's clear to everyone else somehow isn't under way.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  4. Another poignant post, Robert. This hit home especially: "The pleasure of a quiet bike ride along a winding country lane is increasingly interrupted by the speeding of vehicles taking the route their navigation app tells them will be least congested." Am wondering if there are data bearing this out?

    And I agree with you that "Road use is responding to price signals precisely as conventional economics might predict it would." The other day I posted a piece to that effect on my Carbon Tax Center blog, arguing that the sharp drop in motor fuel prices in 2015 and 2016 was the major cause of the record rise in U.S. vehicle miles traveled for those years: https://www.carbontax.org/blog/2017/02/28/what-the-surge-in-u-s-driving-says-about-carbon-taxing/

    Last, good to see your unflinching defense of hard data, no matter on which side they fall.

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    1. Charles,

      It's nice to hear from you - and thanks for the kind words.

      I don't, unfortunately, have data on the use of minor roads. They tend to be poorly monitored. But, returning to the UK after four years away, I'm noticing far more traffic both on rural roads I knew well before and on London side streets. I can only assume it's because of the rise of navigation apps like Waze, which make it far easier to work out complicated routes. Maybe I'm wrong.

      I'll have a look at your blogpost.

      Thanks, finally, for your words on following the data. I try to do so, but it's certainly not proved a popular stance in this case.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  5. I've suggested that one way to reduce issues on rural roads would be to change the 'default' speed limits. Many major 2 lane roads in Cambridgeshire are now 'posted' at 50mph yet adjacent minor roads default to 60, yet it is these roads that are used more by those on foot or cycle, as it may be the only way to get to the local schools, jobs or shops.

    Were the default be changed to 50 and they post 2 lane roads of a higher standard (such as small by-passes) as 60mph little more signing would be needed. A further improvement could be to differentiate between roads with centre lines and those without. Make it 40mph for roads without a centre line, which tend to be minor narrow roads, where 60 is very clearly 'inappropriate' (though not in itself illegal), and 50 for those with a centre line. Could be done overnight, and tweaks like adding or removing centre line changed later. Yes there will be exceptions. I think of the post 1960's improvements to single track roads in N Scotland. They already have posts at passing places so adding a plastic 50 or 60 roundel is no great expense or difficulty. In Cambridgeshire cycle fatalities on rural 'de-restricted' roads are greater than in restricted areas such as Cambridge despite the huge differences in levels of cycling.

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    1. Jim,

      Thanks for the comments. Those seem sensible ideas. I guess the question is whether anyone will enforce the speed limits. I'm pretty confident speeds on many rural roads are well in excess of the speed limits.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. The way car dealers keep trying to push the latest models on consumers so incessantly, as if there isn't already enough cars on the road.
    And, how are all these consumers financing these vehicles?
    And just how many vehicles do each of them own?

    One can't even walk anywhere without finding someone's bumper right on top of them every time they walk by a McDonald's or CVS or by an alley or side street, as someone's always turning into every parking lot or alley constantly.
    It's because so many people are always "behind the wheel".

    Just think of how much space all these vehicles are taking up.
    Are they going to start tearing down buildings and residential units to make room for more parking lots? Everyone will have to start living in the cars because there won't be any structures left to reside in.

    Sooner or later, unless all the stupid women of the world don't quit "having babies" all the time, everyone will eventually be forced to "take the train" everywhere they go. Because, by then, there won't be anything else left in the world except a bunch of freeways and parking lots. They'll be needing to rebuild societies all over again.

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    1. Tal,

      I think that most of the world has at least realised that the Los Angeles solution - building ever more roads and ever more parking lots - is not going to work. We're consequently stuck in a strange in-between land where policy-makers are unwilling to introduce price signals that might stem the growth of driving, or at least its most damaging forms, but there's no effort, either, to provide for the growth. As you point out, given that world populations are going to keep growing, something needs to be done to encourage more space-efficient modes instead.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  7. Fuel tax is a poor way to deal with congestion since, a Tesla causes every bit as much congestion as a "Firebelcher 8." You didn't mention the two words of "Toll Road." They're becoming ubiquitous in many parts of the US. As a refinement, base the tolls on the square footage of road used per occupant. My own main argument with toll roads is that sometimes they obscure what/how the toll will be collected. Notorious in this regard is the toll road that bypasses Denver. I could detect no statement of how much it cost, nor of how to pay whatever it cost, or of any phone number to call. We DID get a bill three months later at our North Texas address, along with a lot of "late" fees.

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    1. Steve,

      You're quite right about the shortcomings of fuel tax and that's a huge part of the reason why it's vital to move on from fuel tax as a means of paying for road use. It's obviously correct there should be an element of tax on fuel that covers the cost of the associated carbon emissions and pollution. But it would be far better to move to a rational system of charging for road use with an element of charging related to where the journey takes place and the time of day. I've long been a robust supporter of such a policy, both for the UK and the US. Oregon, I think, is starting to adopt such a policy.

      As for the toll road point, I failed to mention them largely because they're not a big part of the debate in the UK. There's only one privately-owned toll road in the UK - the M6 Toll in the Birmingham area. But the experience there has been much as it has been for many US toll roads paralleling existing roads - there's little traffic when there's a parallel, untolled alternative, no matter how busy it is.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  8. Robert wrote:
    "There is a wide range of estimates of whether the annual tax take from driving covers the full external costs of motoring - most of which come from congestion."

    Kevin's comment:
    I would challenge the assertion that the external costs due to congestion are higher than external costs due to motor vehicle operators poisoning people. I note that in the City of Toronto, the Public Health Department determined that the fine particles and other lethal poisons with which motor vehicle operators poison people cause annual health care and mortality costs of $2.2 billion in Toronto. See page ii of the Executive Summary at:

    http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2007/hl/bgrd/backgroundfile-8046.pdf

    While one is looking at this official government report, I draw attention to page 6:

    "There are some populations which are particularly susceptible to the effects of traffic related pollution. These include fetuses and children, the elderly, and those with pre- existing breathing and heart problems. However, healthy individuals are also at risk
    of these effects from both short-term exposures as well as chronic exposure over several years or a lifetime."

    Needless to say, I have Zero Tolerance of car drivers launching their lethal fine particle cancer poison attacks upon myself, my dear wife and my precious children.

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    1. Kevin,

      A big part of the problem with all these efforts to quantify internal and external costs is that they're highly sensitive to how one calculates any number of factors. The cost of air pollution from vehicles, as opposed to all the other sources of pollution, is especially difficult to quantify. As far as I'm aware, most economists still rate the persistently high levels of congestion in many places as being more economically significant than the health costs of pollution. But it's fair to say, I think, that there's a growing awareness of pollution's effects and, hence, a rising estimate of the costs it imposes.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  9. 1. I think you are too unwilling to make motorists pay. f we look at the conventional economics way of considering "external economic costs" we have: danger (different from casualties), casualties, noxious, greenhouse and noise emissions, visual intrusion, space consumption, community severance, etc. All these can have monetised values which can be charged for. The only reasons to not do this are (a) It is difficult, if not impossible, to assess the economic cost of, say greenhouse gas emissions (b)It is immoral to let someone (to take this case) contribute to climate change because they have paid a sum of any size.

    However, that doesn't mean that you can't send out a price signal by charging far more to drive: this would reduce the amount of driving and push those still driving to do so more fuel efficiently through purchase of more fuel efficient vehicles, car share and/or drive more fuel efficiently. You could also implement carbon rationing which would make driving more inconveniently expensive. On top of all that, you could use the charging of drivers as a tax gathering scheme, just as collecting VAT is charged for goods that have rather less deleterious
    effects.

    2. I think you are wrong about congestion. Essentially, anything can be said to "cause congestion", from buildings "in the way of" what could be roads to speed up motors until they get to the next blockage, to pedestrians crossing the road, to the amount of motor traffic which would not be there if the law was rigorously enforced and errant drivers taken off the roads. Besides, we have to be frank about what exactly the problem with congestion actually is: how much should we worry about drivers spending a bit longer driving when they could be using other modes or not travelling at all?
    Whatever: I don't think cyclists should spend too much time worrying about if they cause congestion. Most drivers, in my experience, do not.

    Dr Robert Davis

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    1. Dear Dr Davis,

      It's a strange reading of the post to say I'm too unwilling to make motorists pay. The piece explicitly contains a rebuttal of the idea that it's necessarily unjust to raise fuel duty: "It is... far from clear that placing a higher tax burden on drivers would be as unjust as opponents typically suggest." The piece is an extended call for the introduction of distance-based road-user charging, a project that was abandoned precisely because so many drivers were angry about the prospect.

      Your comment, however, mainly seems to suggest we can't measure either the external costs of driving or the causes of congestion precisely, so we shouldn't try at all. I disagree. There are many ways of assessing the cost of carbon emissions - a simple one is to look at the value of a tonne of carbon emissions through the European emissions trading scheme. Alternatively, there are plenty of studies looking at the likely impact of climate change and the volume of carbon emissions necessary to cause various potential changes to the world's climate. It's entirely possible from those to come up with an estimate for the cost of a tonne of emissions. It's not, in my view, good enough merely to say that something's so bad that we refuse to attach an economic cost to it. To start dealing with carbon emissions, it's vital to say why they're bad and in any human society money is a prime expression of what's worthwhile or otherwise.

      I similarly reject the idea that we can't know what's causing congestion in London or how cycling facilities have contributed to it. We can see figures showing that for a while now central London's congestion has been growing worse despite falls in traffic volumes. We can see that there was a particular jump in congestion around the time that the segregated cycle superhighways came into use and that it's grown steadily worse since then. We can see that journey times alongside most stretches of segregated superhighway are now significantly longer than before the new facilities were built. Is it possible that this is all true and that somehow, magically, the cycle facilities aren't contributing to it? I suppose there might be some unlikely set of events that means something else caused the problem. But it's clear where the evidence points.

      Finally, you use the argument that I've seen a lot of people use when I point out the evidence about conditions in central London - it's not cyclists' issue to worry about. I disagree again. At the moment, many cycling lobbyists - including London Cycle Campaign - are accusing potential allies such as public transport campaigners and Transport for London of, essentially, lying about or misunderstanding the factors delaying buses in central London. That seems to me very unfortunate. The debate is likely to proceed in a far more logical fashion if we start by accepting the truth and working out the best policy steps to take given that central London's road space is finite and measures that reallocate the space between modes inevitably affect the modes that have lost space.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  10. * Costs of motoring: I'm OK with getting some sort of estimate - as I say, to send out a price signal. I just think you have to be very careful with the morality of saying that it's OK to pollute, congest, drown out somebody else's country etc. if you pay a monetary price which some economists somewhere have - in what will invariably be a contentious way - worked out.

    Causes of congestion: The point I was making is that causation is largely a moral, political question. You can argue that just about anything "causes" congestion. You also have to say what exactly is wrong with congestion: for example, reducing traffic speeds and making drivers aware of the large numbers of vehicles and people near them is good from a safety point of view. Also, what exactly is the problem with some road users who have chosen a particular form of transport taking a longer time than they would wish? After all, most car users would ideally like to be able to drive everywhere they may wish to go as swiftly as possible - do we want to support that fantasy?

    * Cyclists debating their causing of congestion. All of this leads to the final point: why cyclists should go about pleading guilty to this phenomenon which means so many different things to so many different people using different types of transport. The point is that the logical steps you refer to are generally logical in different ways to different people - different "logics" are being employed. Will starting out by saying that cycle lanes "cause congestion" lead to a rational discussion about how to allocate road space? I'm dubious about that.

    I also have to emphasise that uber, black cabs, bus operators and private car users don't seem so willing to admit to causing congestion, which is why so many cycle campaigners are dubious about your desire to start off with the claim of cycle ways causing congestion.

    A final point - how about the vast majority of places where there are no cycle ways and where cyclists filter through (often stationary) motor traffic. How much congestion does this cause? Will coming out with a calculation which may appear to be robust to a transport academic actually be embraced by the general public?

    All for now, thanks for your reply.

    Dr Robert Davis

    ReplyDelete

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