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Changes to NE 125th create a better neighborhood street for all

Before (via Google Street View)

One more street in Seattle is safer thanks to the city’s complete streets remake of NE 125th Street in Lake City. What used to be a dangerous, four-lane highway-style road dividing the neighborhood has been redesigned to meet the needs of all road users and improve safety for everyone.

When the city proposed changes to NE 125th St last year, some people in the neighborhood were wary, while others welcomed the changes. Other people used the project to attack the mayor politically, saying the changes were evidence that the mayor only cares about bicycling. SDOT released studies and research, showing that their plans were sound, but it seemed to do little to stop attacks on the project.

The fight that ensued was painful to everyone involved.

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SDOT, with the mayor’s approval, went ahead with the project, and NE 125th is now a calmer, safer street.

I spent an hour riding around the street during rush hour a few weeks ago, observing traffic and how people in the neighborhood use the street. Even though I was there between 4:30 and 5:30 on a Thursday evening (the height of rush hour), traffic flow was smooth. I did not see a single backup the entire length of the changes. The stoplight at 15th Ave NE is long, but every car waiting for the light was able to make it through before the signal cycle turned red again (a fear I had heard from concerned citizens).

Here is a little video I shot:

So, what can we learn from the NE 125th St debate? Clearly, advocates of road diets did not learn from previous, very similar, drawn-out debates on Stone Way and Nickerson. In the face of the NE 125th St debate, David Hiller (still with Cascade) asked, “What are we doing wrong?” Seattle Likes Bikes (which formed in part during the Stone Way debate) even made the claim that safe streets advocates were winning battles but “losing the war” (this was before the whole “war on cars” meme derailed city conversation for several months for no reason).

The problem is that major media and the mayor’s political opponents successfully framed the projects as “bikes vs. cars.” They are not, but many advocates (myself included) played into this false “us vs. them” mentality that hurts the cause. The projects make streets safer for everyone, including people riding bicycles. But to people doubtful of the projects (and the city’s altruistic intentions behind them), I am guessing this line sounds like B.S. After all, the promised (and actual) results of the projects are almost too good to be true, and some choose to simply not believe it.

I am going to make a similar claim that I made in the aftermath of the deep bore tunnel vote: We need to present a vision of a neighborhood that is no longer divided by a dangerously-designed road with rampant speeding and a high number of traffic injuries. Or better yet, we need to highlight the incredible success stories all around our city. Look at Greenwood Ave, for example. Or N 45th Street in Wallingford, one of the first road diets in the city.

Would you believe me if I told you Rainier Ave S through Othello and Rainier Beach carries almost identical traffic to N 45th St in Wallingford? That’s what SDOT traffic flow data shows. Yet Rainier is one of the deadliest streets in the city, while N 45th saw zero fatalities between 2005 and 2010.

There was one fatality on NE 45th St in the U-District, but the road is a dangerous four-lane highway at that point. In fact, almost none of the fatal collisions in our city during those five years occurred on streets that had been road dieted since the city started doing them in the 70s. This is not mere coincidence, it is sound design.

Safe streets are the key to a thriving neighborhood, and residents constantly ask the city to cut down on speeding and to install crosswalks near their homes. Road diets are one of the best complete streets design tools we have to increase walkability and bikeability while drastically reducing injury-causing traffic collisions.

In light of what appears to be yet another successful project, what should safe streets advocates and the city do next time to prevent another repeat of the same old, divisive debate? How can we get more momentum behind the call for safer neighborhood streets?

UPDATE: I asked SDOT if there had been any studies of traffic flow on NE 125th since the changes. Their response:

At this point, it is too early to conduct any studies of the newly reconfigured roadway.  Our traffic engineers have observed NE 125th since the changes and, unsurprisingly, found that the reconfiguration is operating as expected.

For NE 125th, we plan to conduct a six month review which will cover speeds and volumes.  After the reconfigured roadway has been in place at least one year, we will study it in greater detail.  From that will come a report that covers a full battery of data, including pedestrian crossings, intersection levels of service, vehicular speeds and volumes, bike volumes and neighborhood diversions.

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39 responses to “Changes to NE 125th create a better neighborhood street for all”

  1. Kevin

    Rainer is totally due for an overhaul.

  2. biliruben

    Except for true highways, there should almost never be more than one through, general purpose lane. It creates that racetrack attitude among cars. I fall into it very easily, and most other people do too. Give us good turn lanes, and one lane to drive safely through, and you change the attitude from “race you to the next light” to “follow the rest of the through traffic and keep an eye out for bikes and peds”.

  3. LWC

    As much as I hate to say it, getting McGinn out of office may be the best thing when it comes to these sorts of issues. His unpopularity combined with his bike focus gives too much fodder to opponents of these sorts of improvement. The lack of the “Mayor McSchwinn” sound-bite would leave room for more useful debate on road rechannelizations. On the other hand, maybe I’m just being overly optimistic…

  4. Alfonso Lopez

    Did you mean to claim 45th in Wallingford is a success? I didn’t realize it was a road diet, but if it is, it is absolutely not a success. That road is constantly jammed and I avoid it at ALL costs. Could you possibly have meant Stone?

    1. AndrewN

      N 45th in Wallingford was a 1970’s road diet (Seattle’s first). It is a jam, but it’s safe and it allows for on-street parking that businesses really want.

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      Alfonso, do you mean you avoid it on foot, in a car or on a bike? I agree it’s not a good street for bicycling (and it was not designed to be one). But it’s a remarkably walkable street, considering how many motor vehicles use it every day. There are many safe crossings that do not have traffic signals, which is nearly impossible on a street with four lanes. That walkability makes the commercial center of Wallingford active and thriving.

      Imagine if, between Aurora and I-5, you could only walk across the street at Stone, Wallingford, Corliss, Thackary and Latona. The neighborhood economy would be a fraction of what it is today, and the neighborhood would be completely divided.

      I drove on 45th often back when I lived in north Fremont (and we had a car). It was slow-going, but you always get through (unless there is a UW football game). One shouldn’t expect to race through a neighborhood center. 45th caries a remarkable amount of cars while remaining a relatively walkable street. It’s design could be better, for sure (hey, it was done in the 70s), but overall it’s a great success and a great example.

    3. doug in seattle

      From a safety perspective, which of course is the most important perspective, it is a success.

      When I drive, I drive on 50th. I have no issues walking or riding my bike on it, which I can’t say for many other similarly busy streets in this city.

    4. I agree that 45th works very well. It’s a great pedestrian street, and actually quite good for biking east (where you’re mostly going downhill, and can easily just take a lane). Even if you’re driving, the relatively slow speed and center turn lane make getting through the road easy, compared to 50th, which is a real obstacle.

      Going west on a bike I typically take 44th instead, unless I’m in a hurry (then I prefer 45th for its signal priority and sight lines).

    5. Alfonso Lopez

      I’ll agree on the walkability of 45. But there is wisdom in not telling drivers that a road that is consistently a frustrating gridlock should be considered the successful end of a road diet.

      If that is the example a car user is given, they will 9 times out of 10 rail against the concept. 45th sucks to drive on.

      I pretty much only bike. 45th is ok, for biking, but in reality a huge part of it is too narrow to comfortably (if not safely) navigate between parked cars and traffic. There simply isn’t 3 feet of space to give. I mean, we are advocating a green way on 44th because 45 isn’t so safe, right?

      Regardless of the usability to cyclists and pedestrians. I strongly urge advocates to not say “Look at 45th, road diets work!” to convert drivers. 45th sucks for drivers. Actual social utility notwithstanding. You will just make enemies for infrastructure change.

      1. Ulysses

        Alfonso is correct. The main article points out the importance of emphasizing that road diets are great as a general improvement for all users, cars included. 45th St is such a bad road diet design it really should only be mentioned as a lessons learned example. Perhaps it’s walkability is great but it is absolutely a bottleneck for driving.

        I strongly suggest sticking to examples where the road diet incorporated a central two-way turn lane. Every one of these I’ve seen has improved traffic, as well as making a safer space for biking and walking.


  5. Lisa

    I always hear about daily traffic volumes; is there any data avaliable for peak traffic? For example, if 45th’s traffic was spread out through out the day and Rainier’s was concentrated at peak times, perhaps there are different criteria for road diets. (I’m in favor of them, but like to have my facts).

  6. Mike H

    I generally agree with the sentiment expressed here. I often like to think of road diets as right-sizing roads. Take for example a sewer pipe. If an engineer was to come up and say, we have figured out that we can reduce the pipe size from 12″ to 8″, very few people would say anything. It’s similar in that we have a specific amount of traffic flowing and the three lane alternative won’t change that. The fact that we can add bike lanes is pure frosting on the cake.

    I’d like to point out, though, that pedestrian fatalities are only part of the picture. Fatalities on the roadway are a rare event (compared to the sheer volume of traffic using roadways daily). Also, four-lane roadways are not always dangerous. In fact, most roadways are not. It is the drivers on them that are. I personally get tired of hearing that engineering is the way to solve everyone’s problem. Some problems like collisions are going to be corrected by stricter enforcement and stronger education. Unfortunately, these are typically not programs that someone can cut a ribbon in front of.

    Lisa- A general rule of thumb in traffic engineering is that if you take the average daily traffic volume and multiply it by 10%, that is a rough approximation of the peak hour volume.

    1. AndrewN

      The 10% rule applies to the average road, but it can vary, typically from 8-12%. I-5 in Central Seattle or N/NE 45th Street are less than 10%, while other roads with a greater commuter focus (e.g. Holman Road NW in Crown Hill or 4th Avenue S in SODO) are closer to 12%. SDOT does AM and PM peak hour counts along with their daily volumes, but they don’t typically post them online.

    2. Andreas

      Engineered fixes tend to be one-off expenditures that require reasonable chunks of money to undo, whereas enforcement and education are ongoing expenditures that can easily be cut to save money (at least in the short term, which is all American politics is concerned with). I’d rather have a fix that we can be reasonably sure won’t simply be eliminated in the next budget battle or after the next election.

    3. Tom Fucoloro

      Enforcement has proven to be largely ineffective. Quite simply, if a road feels like a 40 mph road, people will drive 40 regardless of the speed limit. You can’t pull over everyone. And even if you could, that’s a rough way to enforce a desired speed.

      I agree that just engineering is not going to fix everything. I think a culture that demands these changes is necessary, and we do have that in Seattle. As advocates, we can nurture and grow this demand, spreading the word in neighborhoods with dangerous streets that things don’t have to be that way. If people see a road diet as a solution from the government for political reasons, they are rightfully going to be skeptical. But if it is the government responding to community demands for safe streets, that’s different. People already want these changes, so we need to find a way to make them more visible and help them gather support for changes.

      1. Mike H

        You’re right that enforcement is a short term fix to a long term problem. At the same time, driver error is a main component of traffic collisions. My point is that as a society we have been too quick to look to engineering while not addressing the other challenges of education and enforcement.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        That’s true. I like what my friend Adonia wrote recently about the concept of being a “social driver.”


        The idea is that we need to foster a culture of interactive driving where people realize they are part of the urban environment, not just speeding through it.

        However, some road designs put drivers in situations that commonly lead to driving errors more than other road designs. That’s sort of what we’re talking about here.

        Here’s a common, extremely dangerous example: A line of cars in the left of the two eastbound lanes on a four-lane road is stopped to allow a westbound car to make a left. A driver in the curb lane, which is open, does not proceed with caution and t-bones the turning car, which had been blocked from view by the line of stopped traffic. This type of wreck has a high likelihood of injury or death. Both the driver turning and the driver in the right lane should have proceeded with more caution and share some level of the blame (I think, though I’m not an expert on liability in these situations). However, assignment of liability will not bring back a dead family member or heal a broken arm.

        This situation is avoidable. We can design roads so drivers don’t need to make risky turns across multiple lanes of traffic, testing their road skills and education. Throw drugs and alcohol into the mix, and even the best road education in the world won’t help. That’s why the majority of my energy goes into redesigning our roads to better suit the use and the needs of all people using it.

      3. Jake Jackson

        Here’s a common, extremely dangerous example: A line of cars in the left of the two eastbound lanes on a four-lane road is stopped to allow a westbound car to make a left. A driver in the curb lane, which is open, does not proceed with caution and t-bones the turning car, which had been blocked from view by the line of stopped traffic.

        In the real world, the left turn you speak of almost always occurs at a controlled intersection. The turning driver makes the turn on a green arrow. All of the eastbound traffic, including in the curb lane, is stopped for a red light.

        The more common exception is that some cyclista in the curb lane, clad in spandex and driving a really cool “fixie,” decides to speed through the intersection. He’s on his way home from a Critical Masshole rally, where he’s helped obstruct traffic and wantonly endanger pedestrians. Pedaling at 30 miles an hour, the cyclista gets t-boned by the turning car, and his friends bombard The Stranger with letters about the evil motorists.

  7. Charlie

    You ask:
    In light of what appears to be yet another successful project, what should safe streets advocates and the city do next time to prevent another repeat of the same old, divisive debate? How can we get more momentum behind the call for safer neighborhood streets?

    After my experience organizing advocates of the Nickerson St. diet, I can tell you that talking about making the streets safer for all users sounds good but was resoundingly scoffed at by all the opponents. Why? Because their trips in cars would be delayed. That was their reasoning, plain and simple, though callous. I made sure to frame everything as “making the street safer for all users.” I always talked about peds, cars and bikes, even putting bikes last in the list. No go.

    In other words, it’s a hard sell in a city with opponents that have largely bought into the war on cars meme. What can we do? A) agree on a good sound bite that makes the case clearly that this is about safety for all users. I’m not saying that’s the right wording, just the idea to get across because arguing against safety for all users is very hard to do. B) We should use simple to understand numbers based on facts (not projections) from previous projects to show they work. C) I think we need to stop calling them “Road Diets.” No one likes a diet and the word carries cruddy connotations. I like the idea of “right-sizing roads” as Mike H put it, but that sounds a bit wonky to me and seems open to debate about what is “right.” We need something clean and easy and catchy like “war on cars” that will get in the minds of people, stick there AND create the right picture. It’s what the tea party does. It’s what we need to do.

    1. Charlie

      Oh and videos are a great tool but I think they should be done before and after. A non-biker who looks at that has nothing to compare it to when told it’s less stressful to ride there now. What did it look like before?

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Yeah, I meant to get some before footage, but snoozed too long. I meant to do that same on Greenwood Ave and snoozed on that, too. I’ll get it right one of these days…

      2. biliruben

        As someone who rode it a few of times pre-broadening the use, I can attest that it was very stressful.

        Going up hill, cars would come up fast on your butt, then veer into the left lane, sometimes with a honk, sometimes not.

        Going downhill, I would be travelling the speed limit, and cars would buzz me going 50, inches from my handlebars, no matter where I positioned myself.

        I started riding 115th after that, though that is so steep as to be impossible to ride for 90% of all riders, including me. Maybe if I had 3 rings. Maybe. I snapped my chain attempting it, and sprained my shoulder pretty badly, peddling wildly like Wiley Coyote over the edge of a cliff. Comical but for the rehab.

    2. LWC

      How about “reclaiming the street” or something like that?

    3. biliruben

      Broadening the Road Use, or just Broadening the Road.

      Positive spin without confrontational language. Definitely spin though.

    4. Leif

      Yes Charlie. Thank you for mentioning this. I’ve been advocating for stopping the use of the term “road diet” for awhile. Nobody wants to be told they need to diet. As a community we need to stop this term dead in its tracks. It only helps fuel the “war on cars” mentality. Here are some other terms that work fine if we want to be wonky:

      road rechannelizations
      safety reconfiguration

      But even better the name should appeal to those who are most likely to be against it: daily drivers who never bike, bus or walk. Drivers get many benefits from these projects as well, primarily from the removal of the left turn obstacle. How about calling them “traffic flow improvement projects”?

  8. jpsfranks

    Emphasize the turn lanes. I ride quite a bit on Nickerson and Stone Way, and was just on 125 this weekend, but I appreciate the road diets more for the turn lanes when I’m driving than I do for the bike lanes when I’m riding.

  9. ODB

    I agree with jpsfranks that emphasizing the turn lanes is a good way to go. If you describe the projects as “adding a dedicated turn lane to improve left-turn safety” then it is framed as an “addition” to the street, rather than a loss, which is what is implied by a “road diet.” We don’t need a focus group to tell us that people prefer a policy that is presented as adding a new feature, rather than imposing austerity (a “diet”) by taking something away.

    On the other hand, trying to rebrand road diets at this stage is probably not going to work. “Road diet” is short and memorable and already in circulation. A campaign to rebrand something in itself suggests that proponents have failed to convince the public of the value of the policy and are resorting to word games in order to disguise the truth about it. It may imply dishonesty and/or a hidden agenda. If people are pleased with or indifferent to the results, the issue will fade away and it ultimately won’t matter whether we call it rechannelization, road diets or McSchwinn’s McWelfare for Freeloading Cyclists (joke).

    As far as what we can do to avoid further divisive debates, I’m afraid we may just have to let this play out. I’m not an expert on local media, since I don’t watch TV or listen to any news radio except NPR. But my sense is the local media is currently in love with stories on bike v. car conflict. Conflict and controversy are always going to be more exciting than a reasonable presentation of the facts, and for whatever reason, these stories must being attract lots of pageviews or whatever. In the barber shop the other day, I saw three stories involving bicycles in a half-hour local evening newscast. The Seattle Times recently ran a series of letters on its web page on the question of whether or not there is something unfair to cars about Bicycle Sunday (!).

    We know that our only major daily is committed to using bicycle issues and the larger war-on-cars meme in its relentless campaign against McGinn. I don’t see this ending until one of three things happens: 1) McGinn is no longer in office, 2) Ryan Blethen starts showing up at the Times’ offices in spandex, or 3) people simply get tired of reading about the issue.

  10. Industrialbiker

    ODB hit this spot on. In the meantime SDOT can focus on “neighborhood greenways” until that too becomes a way to sell newspapers.

    1. biliruben

      I don’t agree with that. SDOT should continue to the right thing, regardless of the flack they get.

  11. But…are those bike lanes a benefit, are they a benefit in all cases? I’m sure you can see the bike lanes pictured and most of you can identify with them…but can you see where and how the bike lane violates the rules of the road and the conflicts that causes? Can riding with traffic using the safety and convenience of the rules of the road be a benefit to bicyclists? Where and how? I see no attempt to even mention this let alone give it a serious comparison and that’s a very serious blind-spot in bike advocacy. After all, is there a more important choice for bicyclists today?

    My website is designed to get people thinking…and comparing…their options. And learning the benefits of driving with traffic…identifying harmful ways of thinking that prevent learning in spite of experience and replacing these thoughts with healthy ways of thinking that really encourage and accelerate learning traffic skills. And providing a way of learning the skills the most mobile and safest bicyclists use.

    That way you can compare your options objectively. And thats a good healthy way to bicycle…and live your life.

    For the curious only: BicycleDriver.Com

  12. Doug Bostrom

    Based on what I’ve read, much opposition to “right-sizing” roads comes from the right. Here’s an attempt at crafting a message to appeal to that side of the political spectrum:

    Roads are built by governments, Big Bad Governments that want to take your money from you so faceless bureaucrats can buy more champagne on your dime. So shrinking roads means shrinking government! Don’t you want to shrink government?

    (Optional, in case of serious resistance: “Are you some kind of a Demoncrat?” or in the case of real intransigence: “How’s that government road working out for ya, wink-wink??”)

    1. Hi Doug,

      Would you like to check out my website and the work I do with bicyclists? That way you’ll know more about me and my work. Both of my testimonials on the home page are real world and they are from liberal people.

      Contact me and I’ll do what I can to help you understand compare and evaluate different options bicyclists have. Thats the best way I can think of to help people understand my approach the best.

      I recommend my free report The Six Biggest Myths that Steer Bicyclists in the Wrong Direction…Are you at Risk? I’m working with bicyclists learning to ride with traffic using the rules of the road because the mobility and safety record of these bicyclists is as good and better than the average motorist. But, I also want bicyclists to understand their options and all the different views people have because I believe that is fundamental ultimately to understanding all the different behaviors we will see and have to deal with. And thats the only way to get along with the greatest number of people using our streets.

  13. Doug Bostrom

    David, I’m not a fan of artificial scarcity. I’m interested in hearing what you have to say, but as it now stands hearing your thoughts requires that I join your newsletter, etc. Why not just publish your ideas on your site, where everybody can read without further ado?

    1. Doug,

      I’m very sorry to read that a free sign-up for a newsletter and article is enough to stop you dead in your tracks. Given that, I’m thinking that I can’t help you. But you’re very welcome to click through my website, the resources page and blog as I add to them.

  14. EJ

    I was directed to this website by an email from the mayor. Don’t know much about it but I have been fuming at the change on 125th.

    I have a long love affair with my bike(s): Riding to grade school, then to car-centric Bellevue High School in the 60s, to 15 mile rides to the UW in 1970s. I am now nearing the end of my 25 year career with the city, (~30,000 bike commute miles). I have been a longtime member of Cascade and Rails to Trails and bought my house specifically because the garage was 25 feet from the BG trail .

    Given all that, I hold an opposing view of most on this site. Whoever said the change in 125th, (or other road diets that I am familiar with), is insignificant is drinking the koolaide and doesn’t drive those roads regularly. The other day I followed ~20 cars who were following a semi at 10 mph up that hill. Buses I imagine would do the same thing. If it had 2 lanes there would have been no problem get by the road block. And, unlike anothers’ comment, I have missed many, many traffic light cycles because of ridiculous road diets. As an aside I also contend that the grid lock these diets cause create alot of wasted gas. As for 125th, for 3 years I bike commuted on it, (and my wife did 25 years car commuting on it). Actually I ended up using 115th west bound as it is less busy and therefore more enjoyable. One of the riding rules I use are if I am going uphill such as west bound on 125th I use the sidewalk. It drives me crazy to have a cyclist taking up a lane, riding 3 or 5 or 7 mph up an major arterial, (Sandpoint Way to 125th used to be a state highway). I even see this on Lake City Wy at ~ NE 88th St! I don’t much feel like giving that cyclist 3 feet. Eastbound I used 125th since it was easy to take the left lane and zip down the hill with traffic.

    So I contend that the diet on 125th and most other arterials is counter productive for the vast majority, 99%, of it users and creates road rage. You don’t need a diet there, do like I did for 3 years; uphilll, westbound, use the sidewalk. Eastbound, downhill, use the traffic lane. When on the level stay on the right or get on the sidewalk if there’s a stack up behind you so motorists can get by. Also, I am not sure the diet bike lane on eastbound 125th down the hill is any safer than taking a full lane of the old 4 lane configuration. In my mind, what is dangerous in this case is going 30mph downhill on a bike, not the other drivers around you. Is biking dangerous sometimes? Duh. We assume alot of risk when we ride on the road. Does it have to be? No, not if you use a few rules to keep you safe. As for traffic safety that is a stupidity problem: Don’t make a left turn if you can’t see and don’t go 30+ mph in the right lane if the left lane is stopped.

    One last thing I would like to get off my chest is that these diets and the general traffic increase that comes with approving huge apartment buildings without creating more traffic lanes has caused me to use side streets more often. I also think there is a push to untime traffic lights so that you are forced to stop at EVERY SINGLE intersection. There are many arterials that I do not use for these reasons, in favor of side streets. The side streets are faster and the traffic circles are kind of fun to zip around like a slalom course. I do watch carefully for kids and peds, though.

    Next election day I will be a one issue voter. Any mayoral candidate who advocates getting rid of the dieted arterials will get my vote. I don’t think you will change my mind. I most likely have way more bike commute miles, professional risk managment training and as an EMS worker and resident on the BG trail seen many more serious bike crashes than any of you.

    I do not intent to revisit this site, I’m not sure I could even find it as I’m not much for computers. Just thought I would present an opposing view that is held by many I know, including cyclists.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Thanks for the thoughts, EJ.

    2. Doug Bostrom

      EJ’s opinions mostly divorced from the evidence.

      “I also think there is a push to untime traffic lights so that you are forced to stop at EVERY SINGLE intersection. ”

      Really. Who’s behind the curtain, plotting to inconvenience us? Another guy who keeps on rattling away about poorly synchronized lights is good ol’ Tim Eyman, the guy who never saw an automobile traffic lane he didn’t like, as long as it was paid for by magical unicorns rather than the people who actual use the lanes.

    3. Jake Jackson

      The real objective of road diets (or whatever new label some genius invents) is to make the city intolerable for motorists. Great way to get yourself unelected, Mr. McGinn. Bad star to hitch your wagon to, cyclistas. You’ll see.

  15. Jake Jackson

    Wow. Really, wow. You actually think that a different label is the issue. What mushrooms do you eat? Where can I get some, for those days when I need to escape reality?

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