Bus Rapid Transit vs Light Rail Transit; What is the Difference and Why Light Rail Transit?

More than just the initial upfront Capital Expenditure Cost

In the Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail – What is the Difference? we took a look at the difference between Bus Rapid Transit (bus-ways) and Light Rail Transit or LRT for short. 

A brief recap from that post:

Light Rail or Bus Rapid Transit? The very question that can polarise even the most staunch urbanists in trying to create a better city and a better urban environment? But does it need to be this way?
NO it certainly does not. Light Rail or LRT and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) are both very useful mass transit tools moving mass amounts of people from A to B (okay here come the A2B puns with Airport to Botany Rapid Transit) efficiently and without the need for large urban road ways.
Both BRT and LRT are medium distance movers (so say up to 20km after which heavy rail becomes more viable for someone wanting to traverse the entire line such as Papakura to Britomart) and efficient at moving people short or those medium distances. In the end though what are the differences between the two?
The two differences is capacity (LRT moves more) and amenity (you can “green” LRT but can not with BRT)

quote context: http://pllqt.it/FV2ZaP

In the end it came down to amenity and the existing urban and/or natural environments when it came to choosing Light Rail for Airport to Botany (A2B). This was based on amenity and physical geography grounds as most of the A2B Light Rail Transit route is grass embankments or medians thus minimising the need for storm water ponds otherwise needed with Bus Rapid Transit and its accompanying tarmac.

Light rail with lawn trackage in Brussels, Belgium. http://citytransport.info/Lawn.htm

Continuous Upgrades of Bus Rapid Transit Outweighs costs of going straight to Light Rail? Ottawa offers sage lessons

We take a look at Ottawa and how shortfalls in Bus Rapid Transit has led to expensive upgrades, retrofits and how advancement in Light Rail rolling stock technology allows LRT to adapt to its urban environment. 

From Raise the Hammer:

With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT

One of the key issues with BRT is that you are forced to spend a lot more money to continuously upgrade the BRT right of way as passenger levels grow.

By Fraser Pollock  Published October 19, 2018

The Ottawa Experience

Ottawa is in the middle of a conversion away from a very successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network known by its marketing name, The Transitway, towards a Light Rail Transit Network known as the O-Train.

The remaining BRT System will feed the LRT system and act as rapid transit in areas too low in passenger levels to have LRT. This article looks at the trials and tribulations that come with this process.

Really Understanding Bus Rapid Transit

For most situations, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is generally cheaper to build than Light Rail Transit (LRT). However, it’s not that much cheaper if you do it right and build actual BRT, not BRT-Lite.

BRT Lite is generally express buses operating in mostly mixed traffic, some painted bus lanes, some preemptive intersection signal control and nice bus stops. This often gets called BRT by politicians trying to build rapid transit without spending much money.

With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT

This we need to be very careful with for Airport to Botany Rapid Transit. At the moment Stage 1 is bus lanes down State Highway 20B and some bus priority to Manukau Station. It would also be the same down Te Irirangi Drive from Manukau to Botany if the Government was skimping out on a full bus-way (which a full bus-way problems of its own especially run off and noise).

Unfortunately, most of the time, the amount of money you spend on any rapid transit system is directionally proportional to the positive passenger increases you get out of it. One of the key issues with BRT is that you are forced to spend a lot more money to continuously upgrade the BRT right of way as passenger levels grow.

LRT systems and their rights of way often start up with a much higher level of segregation and heavier infrastructure, so an LRT operation’s positive effects are bigger and more immediately felt. They also can handle much higher levels of passenger growth before you have to spend more money on increasing the passenger carrying capacity of the existing infrastructure.

The main “BRT trap” is the quest for cheap rapid transit by politicians who are unwilling to understand and properly implement transit operating technology like a BRT network.

Politicians like to believe you can start off spending very little on infrastructure and slowly improve it as passenger levels grow. BRT can start off this way but very quickly, increasingly expensive BRT infrastructure upgrades and quickly rising operating costs begin to tax the entire transit system.

In fact, at a certain point, BRT stations and their rights of way have to become larger and more robust than rail infrastructure, just to carry the same number of passengers as a rail-based system. This realization was one of several key breaking points for Ottawa and it’s political BRT supporters.

With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT

The upfront cost or CAPEX (Capital Expenditure) with Light Rail is what scares people in New Zealand the most and is why we half arse (other) projects to save a buck here and now. The Auckland Harbour Bridge, Britomart, Manukau Rail Station (it was meant to terminate next to the mall but the Manukau City Council got scared of the extra $9m needed to bring the rail line there so the station ended up where it is today) and currently the Eastern Busway with Auckland Transport saying it will not be future proofed for Light Rail are all examples. 

Graphic Impression of South Eastern Bus Way that would could also used for the Southern Airport Line

With Airport to Botany (A2B) Rapid Transit there are three figures generally floated around in upfront CAPEX (Capital Expenditure costs), they are:

  • At $75m/km it would cost $1.38 billion to deliver the entire 18km of A2B as LRT
  • Using the same above figure it would cost $712m approx for Airport to Manukau section of the A2B route (and most likely the most patronised part of the route as well)
  • For Bus Rapid Transit (and most likely Lite BRT at that) it was estimated $350m to do all of A2B

$350m seems to be a steal to build a rapid transit line the length of 18km to connect the Airport with Puhinui (and the heavy rail network), Manukau and Botany right? As we will continue to see with Ottawa and also now with our own Eastern Busway there is major and expensive consequences further down the track or rather road. 

Trouble With The Budget

The City of Ottawa has a population of only 970,000 to provide its tax base. Around 2008, when the bus fleet was creeping up to 1,100 buses, the budget people at O.C.Transpo took notice.

Several internal O.C. Transpo reports at the time pointed out that, to accommodate future growth on the Transitway Network as well as the rest of the transit system, no fewer than two new bus garages and a fleet of 1,400-1,500 buses would be needed. Most of these buses would have to be large and expensive articulated or double-decker buses.

The budget people at O.C. Transpo soon realized that this was not affordable at all.

Source: With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT

This situation definitely applies to Dominion Road and Auckland City Centre both clogged with busses. It does not apply to A2B on its own although having an Airport BRT Bus, the 33 Great South Road Bus and the 361 MIT (Otara)/Manukau/Manurewa Bus all trying to ply Davis Avenue with every other single bus using Manukau Station Road or Ronwood Avenue would be enough to create localised bus congestion. Such bus congestion as seen in Ottawa and in Auckland City Centre lowers amenity of the public realm as well as pollution being a hazard to both humans and Fauna alike. 

Bus Routes through Manukau City Centre Source: Auckland Transport

The question one must ask is: can the entire route handle the amount of busses needed to deliver effective BRT and what are the consequences to the urban geography of the Centres where they will often meet up with other busses (feeder and standard commuter busses)? Remember where there is a bus interchange or even a full transport interchange (multi modal) congestion will be acute in the immediate surrounds and all roads leading in and out of the interchange and Centre. 

In this case and again can Manukau Station Road, Davis Avenue and Ronwood Avenue take the increased load from BRT especially if places like Ronwood Avenue are to be upgraded to Main Streets (pedestrian or transit boulevards)?

The Southern Airport Line alternative route through Manukau creating a transit mall type environment . Route could also form the spine for a LLRT route.

The Transitway Network was designed to rail building standards, not road building standards, so that at some future point, the network could be converted to rail operating technology. The advantage of LRT is that it requires a far smaller bus fleet and, by association, fewer bus drivers.

It was decided that conversion would finally begin with what became known as the Confederation Line. Construction began in the fall of 2013 and the conversion away from BRT led to the first of many planned cuts to the bus fleet.

With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT

The Northern Busway is designed to be retrofitted to Light Rail and will be done so within 20 years. Auckland Transport has not decided to make the Eastern Busway at rail standard so it will become near prohibitive to upgrade to LRT in the future. To make the Eastern Busway situation compounded, when LRT does make it to Botany from the Airport the Eastern Busway become a stranded asset and missing link in the chain as you have light rail at one end (Botany) and heavy rail at the other (Panmure). Again expensive retrofits are coming!

The Northern Busway next to the Northern Motorway. Source: NZTA

Bi-articulated buses (24-30 metres long) and even tri-articulated bus designs (28-30 metres long), had been considered by O.C. Transpo in the mid to late 1990s, but ultimately the transit operator refused to buy them.

Transport Canada was going to require extremely expensive safety measures to run them on Ottawa’s Transitway Network, even in a test program. Even the most ardent supporters of these large buses at O.C. Transpo had to admit that these larger buses had many expensive issues.

…….

These large buses are so heavy that Transitway stations require extra strength concrete bus pads in the bus docking lane because their repeated travel on the same path of bus lane can obliterate a brand new asphalt surface in less than 18 months.

With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT

That begs the question for A2B; how will the busses fit in the Manukau Bus Station? The poor sawtooth design already means through busses like the 33 Great South Road busses already stop outside the station itself (leading to poor User Experience when transferring). Given A2B will use Double Deckers or bendy busses for at least the Manukau to Airport section) can Manukau Bus Station and the bus stops on Davis Avenue handle the A2B busses turning around WITHOUT clogging up the roadways?

The answer is no. Is Manukau Bus Station strong enough to take the A2B busses (actually is Davis Avenue strong enough) without the need for retrofitting the area extra strong bus pads? I don’t think the bus station had A2B ever in mind unless Auckland Transport says otherwise. 

What about road space? That we get to further down as we continue to look at Ottawa. 

Both the bi-articulated and tri-articulated bus designs are significantly shorter than the length of one 48.5 metre long Citadis Spirit Light Rail Vehicle (LRV). Ottawa will be running 2 LRVs on each train on the Confederation Line, meaning each train will be 96-97 metres long, carrying 600 passengers (300 per LRV).

The 80 metre long Stadler FLIRT Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) will replace the current Alstom Lint 41 DMUs on the existing Trillium line in 2021.

The following two photos pictures show the scale size of Ottawa’s LRVs compared to buses.

LRT scale compared to buses (Image Credit: Richard Harris/Flickr)
LRT scale compared to buses (Image Credit: Richard Harris/Flickr)



LRT scale compared to buses (Image Credit: Rideau Transit Group)
LRT scale compared to buses (Image Credit: Rideau Transit Group)


New LRV designs around the world are getting larger, leaving their bus cousins behind. Not only are new LRVs getting bigger but they are expandable as well. Both Alstom’s Citadis Spirit LRVs and yes, even Bombardier’s Flexity LRV design planned for several of Toronto’s LRV lines (Finch West and the Eglinton Crosstown), are modular and can add more sections to increase the length of the vehicle.

Bombardier has sold many of its five-section (30 metres long) Flexity family of LRVs in Ontario. However, they can also be expanded to the 42 metre long, seven-section LRV just by adding in the new modules inside their own maintenance facility.

All these designs can operate in trains of up to three LRVs long. Edmonton has pre-ordered the seven-section model and just recently received its first LRV. The plan is to operate these LRVs in three-car trains.

With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT

………

Ottawa’s Alstom Citadis Spirit LRVs, for example, can add a fifth section to the existing four-section vehicle to increase the length from 48.5 metres to 59 metres. This means the total capacity of each LRV will grow from 300 up to 370 passengers. Each of Ottawa’s trains (two LRVs per train) will ultimately be 119-120 metres long, matching the station platform length expandability, and hold up to 740 passengers.

Just like with Bombardier, Alstom’s LRVs can have their modifications/expansions done in the existing maintenance facilities and doesn’t require the vehicle to be sent back to the factory. This built-in passenger expanding capacity is something BRT just can’t do.

CAF of Spain has produced the Urbos 100 family of LRVs, a five-section model has been ordered by Budapest, for Budapest’s Line #1, a much larger nine-section LRV, which is a world record at a whopping 56.3 metres long.

With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT
Urbos 100 LRV by CAF of Spain (Image Credit: International Railway Journal)
Urbos 100 LRV by CAF of Spain (Image Credit: International Railway Journal)

Bit of engineering mechanics there but point comes down to the modular nature of Light Rail Transit and its rolling stock. 

As Vancouver does with Sky Train you can build your initial section of Light Rail and then extend it station to station like LEGO. With rolling stock you can initially purchase say a three car train and then extend it to five cars as well as top-and-tailing (joining two consists together) to meet passenger demand. With BRT this is simply not possible with busses (hence you need an entirely new bus which is more expensive than simply adding on another car to an LRT train). 

As for space requirements when it comes to BRT vs LRT? The corridor space differences would surprise you!

BRT Tunnel Alternative

If we in Ottawa had stayed with BRT instead of changing to LRT operating technology, we would have had to build a massive BRT tunnel instead of an LRT tunnel in downtown. The right of way would have to be able, on opening day, to handle a peak hour passenger load of 10,500 passengers per hour per direction, travelling on 185-200 buses per hour (65 percent of them articulated).


With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT

The BRT Tunnel vs the City Rail Link (heavy rail) actually played out for years before former Mayor Len Brown decided to start the enabling works of the CRL (now fully funded and set to be complete 2024). With City Centre to Mangere Light Rail the same LRT vs BRT debate could have played out but it did not. It was more can the trains fit down Dominion Road (hence see below on space requirements). 

Currently, all these buses are being replaced by only 15 trains running the entire line (again, two LRVs per train). During peak periods, they will operate at a frequency of one train every three minutes and 20 seconds.

The bus tunnel would have to have each below grade station’s two-side platforms and handle no fewer than ten bus docks allowing for the simultaneous berthing of up to ten articulated buses. This means 200 metre long platforms at each station.

That’s an underground mainline railway station platform, folks – imagine something almost as big as your favourite GO Train Station underground. And that’s just to cover planned passenger growth to 2031.

Toronto’s and Montreal’s longest subway station platforms max out at 152 metres (500 ft.) and they have some of the longer subway platforms in North America. Ottawa’s LRT tunnel has 120-metre-long station platforms (400 ft.) some of the longest LRT station platforms in North America, although several cities do have LRT platforms that easily exceed this length.

With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT

Again that debate on platform lengths is being played out with our own City Rail Link and making sure the subterranean stations have platforms long enough to handle 9-car sets (we run 6-car currently)

The Confederation Line surface station platforms in Ottawa are 90-100 metres long but are designed to be easily and cheaply expandable to 120 metres.

The BRT Tunnel stations would need a minimum of three-metre wide platforms, side platforms only because of bus door location, a 3.5 metre docking lane and a four-metre wide passing lane (these are the current Transitway Standards in Ottawa).

That’s 10.5 metres of width for each direction of travel. That means a single tunnel would have to be a minimum of 21 metres or a minimum station box width of 23-24 metres or two parallel tunnels and station boxes, on two parallel streets (Albert and Slater for example) 11-12 metres wide with connecting access tunnels.

The current Ottawa LRT tunnel including platforms is only 13 metres wide, two side platforms, two tracks and a devil strip (the area between the tracks) of about one metre. The tunnel box width is about 14.5-15 metres (mostly under Queen and Rideau Streets).

The largest, deepest and most grand tunnel station is Rideau Station and is clearly less in size and scope than similar bus Transitway stations like the existing St. Laurent Transitway Station, which is the closest equivalent to many of the planned bus tunnel designs.

While not quite an underground station, it is really a trench between a mall and a major highway with a roof. The upper surface of the roof is the local bus platform. You begin to understand the size and scale needed for large below-grade bus rapid transit stations, especially when compared to the size of the LRT equivalent in Ottawa.

In fact, the tunnel box width of the single Bus tunnel design would have allowed for four tracks and two side platforms as well as one centre platform! Each platform would be 2.5-3 metres wide. You only have to look at pictures of the LRT stations under construction at Tunney’s Pasture and see how much wider the former BRT right of way was in comparison.

With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT
St. Laurent Transitway Station before conversion to LRT, looking east. (Image Credit: O.C. Transpo)
St. Laurent Transitway Station before conversion to LRT, looking east. (Image Credit: O.C. Transpo)



St. Laurent Transitway Station looking west. (Image Credit: O.C. Transpo)
St. Laurent Transitway Station looking west. (Image Credit: O.C. Transpo)


An image of a completed Lyon LRT Station platform level, notice the size difference between it and its bus tunnel equivalent. (Image Credit: Rideau Transit Group)
An image of a completed Lyon LRT Station platform level, notice the size difference between it and its bus tunnel equivalent. (Image Credit: Rideau Transit Group)



Rideau Station is the most spacious of all the below-grade LRT Stations in Ottawa because of the removal the ceiling and most of the concourse level above the station platform level. (Image Credit: Rideau Transit Group)
Rideau Station is the most spacious of all the below-grade LRT Stations in Ottawa because of the removal of the ceiling and most of the concourse level above the station platform level. (Image Credit: Rideau Transit Group)

With A2B it would not be a case of a tunnel but more can Manukau Bus Station and Davis Avenue take the amount of bendy busses (given the Line would be running every 5 minutes on peak and 10 minutes off-peak)? Also what about the amenity in the immediate area with that amount of busses trundling through?

Manukau Bus Station concourse with LED cats eyes

As for space the below picture shows that two LRT tracks take up as much space as a single BRT lane. Remember a single BRT bus moves 130 passengers at best while an LRT train can move 600 passengers per consist depending on configuration. 

The West end of Tunney's Pasture Station as well as the end of track. Notice how wide the former BRT right of way needed to be compared to the LRT right of way. (Image Credit: Fraser Pollock)
The West end of Tunney’s Pasture Station as well as the end of track. Notice how wide the former BRT right of way needed to be compared to the LRT right of way. (Image Credit: Fraser Pollock)



The east side of Tunney's Pasture and extra space of the former BRT right of way. (Image Credit: Fraser Pollock)
The east side of Tunney’s Pasture and extra space of the former BRT right of way. (Image Credit: Fraser Pollock)

Again how space efficient LRT is compared to BRT. 

West end of Tunney's Pasture Transitway Station looking east just after closure, June 24, 2016 (Image Credit: Skyscraper Page)
West end of Tunney’s Pasture Transitway Station looking east just after closure, June 24, 2016 (Image Credit: Skyscraper Page)

Look at all this concrete from the BRT line here. Under the Resource Management Act, and a National Policy Statement on fresh water standards storm water run off is required to be detained, treated and let back into the ground or waterways through storm water detention facilities. Given busways are all tarmac the amount of run off would require regular storm water detention facilities meaning more land acquisitions than Green LRT would require. 

Green LRT?

Light rail with lawn trackage in Brussels, Belgium. http://citytransport.info/Lawn.htm

Light Rail can be built upon grass medians or right-of-ways unlike Bus Rapid Transit. This means storm water run off is already detained and percolated back into the ground water system without the need for expensive land hungry storm water detention ponds. 

For more see Guest Post: Auckland’s Urban Freshwater – our transport future? (Part 3)

Tunney's Pasture LRT Station looking west October 4, 2018 (Image Credit: Fraser Pollock)
Tunney’s Pasture LRT Station looking west October 4, 2018 (Image Credit: Fraser Pollock)

Okay in this case with a major station we will need storm water detention facilities but that would be in three locations only: Puhinui, Manukau and Botany – all major stations. 

More Costs With BRT

What was not generally appreciated by the supporters of the Downtown Bus Tunnel in Ottawa was the work that would have to be completed to upgrade the capacity of the existing BRT stations outside of the core to accept the constantly growing numbers of Transitway buses.

No fewer than ten, and possibly up to 12 stations outside of the tunnel, would require huge increases in platform lengths – many would have to have their length doubled.

Many stations would also require big improvements in their ability to handle passengers, such as new entrances/exits, more and or improved elevators/escalators as well as more stairwells. Many of the existing stations would also require very much improved local bus platforms. There were kilometres of expensive concrete upgrades and or conversions to concrete from asphalt at many of the station docking lanes. Just this desperately-needed work alone on the stations outside of the tunnel was budgeted at over $1 Billion.

To add even more costs, many of the older Transitway stations would still have to be upgraded, LRT or no LRT.

With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT
Plastic panels on Westboro Station roof (Photo Credit: Fraser Pollock)
Plastic panels on Westboro Station roof (Photo Credit: Fraser Pollock)

………………

Diagnosing the issues around BRT and LRT is relatively easy. Conversion of the Transitway to the Confederation Line is the challenging part. The story and process were unique because no one in North America had ever completely converted 12.5 km of a successful BRT line to an LRT line before. The process is long and quite involved.

Source: With Love from Ottawa: Lessons on Challenges of Upgrading BRT to LRT

Given that: 1) Ottawa is attempting to retrofit a bus way into a light rail line and this has not been done before, 2) one way or the other upgrades were needed costing alot, 3) Auckland Transport will not future proof the Eastern Busway to take Light Rail, 4) the Northern Busway is to be retrofitted to LRT within 20 years 5) do we really want to repeat the saga with Airport to Botany Rapid Transit then the $350m BRT  verses $1.38b LRT upfront CAPEX cost can not be the sole consideration for Airport to Botany. 

Airport to Botany Rapid Transit suggest route

Questions we need to ask with Airport to Botany:

  1. While it might cost $350m now to build a busway what are the costs to continuously upgrade it and Manukau Bus Station to allow for more patronage before we get to upgrading Light Rail?
  2. What will be the cost of retrofitting to Light Rail in the supposed thirty years time for Airport to Botany?
  3. What about corridor requirements given a Light Rail line takes up a single Bus Rapid Transit lane yet an LRT train can move 600 passengers to BRT’s 130 passengers per bus?
  4. How much will it cost to retrofit Manukau Bus Station for BRT busses?
  5. What is the OPEX for maintaining Davis Avenue and Ronwood Avenue to accommodate the wear and tear from BRT?
  6. What about storm water run off? How much more and do we need for storm water detention facilities required when building BRT when LRT can run on already existing grass medians present in Manukau and Te Irirangi Drive?
  7. What about noise and diesel pollution inside the Manukau and Botany Metropolitan Centres due to BRT (LRT would be electric)?
  8. What about amenity value and how that differs between BRT and LRT inside a Metropolitan Centre again like Manukau?
  9. What about intrinsic amenity value the public attaches to LRT running on grass medians in the middle of a major (Metropolitan) Centre compared to busses and BRT? That leads itself to the question of integration of the rapid transit into the existing urban environment and which one does a better job (it is not BRT owing to space requirements and tarmac)
  10. What about connections and integration to the rest of the transit network? Does BRT or LRT do it better (with A2B it is LRT as shown in the Jacobs report on LRT below)?
  11. How much amenity does $1.38 billion (the cost of LRT) give us compared to $350m for BRT
  12. How does the community feel having to rip the corridor up again inside 30 years to retrofit because we under projected patronage projections (as we often do)?
  13. What are the disruption costs in retrofitting in an area that recently went under intensification? See: 
  14. #OurManukau Set for Major Development: Some Urban Geography Thoughts on my Home undergoing transformation change 
  15. Does Measure Twice, Cut Once (or build right first time every time) hold sway?
Busses and Trams together. Source: Integrated Public Transport, Nantes, France by Heather Allen (2013)

These are all questions we must consider in preparing Airport to Botany Rapid Transit.

Airport and bus line up Source: https://www.scribd.com/document/365399828/Southern-Airport-Line-LRT-Alignment-Proposals-and-Final#

It is more than the simple upfront CAPEX costs when it comes to selecting a Rapid Transit Network mode. It is also about: amenity, integration with other services, retrofitting in the future (if it was future proofed at all), rolling stock costs and adaptability, any future upgrade costs before a full retrofit is needed to a new mode, and finally environmental impacts like storm water run off. 

Have our Planners factored all the above in when it comes to the Business Case for Airport to Botany? That is yet to be seen. 

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One thought on “Bus Rapid Transit vs Light Rail Transit; What is the Difference and Why Light Rail Transit?

  1. Thanks, Ben.
    This is extremely comprehensive. Imagine how transformative LRT would be for South/East Auckland. Let’s hope these arguments win out.
    Cheers.

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