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Women’s (Bike) History: Ellen Fletcher

Even at age 83, even suffering from lung cancer, Ellen Fletcher rode her bike to City Hall for a hearing on bicycle improvements this past summer. That was the level of dedication that made Fletcher not just a local hero, but a national inspiration. As a Gold-level Bicycle Friendly Community, Palo Alto remains a model for cities nationwide — and Fletcher was instrumental in pioneering innovative infrastructure and putting the California city on the map.

As a mother concerned for the safety of her children; an advocate for clean, sustainable transportation; and an elected official who was intent on creating a better community for all, Fletcher was a leading voice for bikes long before there was a growing chorus of support for active transportation. Her efforts ensured that, when she passed away in November, nearly half of the attendees to her memorial pedaled to the service.

Talk about a legacy. According to Richard Masoner: “Ellen escaped Berlin as a Jewish child on the Kindertransport trains and spent her teen years as a refugee in World War II London, where she biked to her factory job. She eventually ended up in Palo Alto, California, where she got her start in cycling advocacy as safety chair of the local PTA when she saw that the best way to protect school children from their greatest danger was by reducing auto traffic around schools. She revived the Santa Clara Valley Bicycle Association (which exists today as the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition) in the early 1970s.”

That was just the beginning — Fletcher was also a vanguard for better bicycle infrastructure that would soon be adopted nationwide. As Bob Mack, publisher of Cycle CA! magazine, noted on the SVBC blog: “When the first bike lanes were proposed Ellen was on the front lines. No one knew what a bike lane was or why we needed them. She led the fight and helped create a network of green (yes, pea green) bike lanes to connect schools, parks and neighborhoods in the city. This transformed transportation for those without cars.”

Fletcher also pioneered the first bike boulevard in the U.S. As Naomi Bloom recounted: “In 1973, Ellen Fletcher joined Palo Alto’s fledgling “Citizen’s Technical Advisory Committee” on bicycling. By the next year she was the committee’s chairperson, the guiding light of what was to become the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee. One of PABAC’s original campaigns was a (then) innovative bikeway concept — a street where automobile access would be limited (but not restricted), offering cyclists a relatively safe alternative to other routes with heavy motor traffic. They dubbed the concept a “bicycle boulevard.”

Surprisingly, there was little resistance from the City, which chose Bryant Street for a six-month trial period. Bicycle counts showed a dramatic increase of cyclists on Bryant and a corresponding decrease on the busiest parallel arteries. The first of its kind in the country, the Bryant Street Bicycle Boulevard later expanded north to the Menlo Park border, and has served as a model for similar bike routes across the country. And now it’s been dubbed the “Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard.”

Fletcher kept her seat on PABAC for nearly 40 years and also served on the city council from 1977 to 1989. As her daughter rightly pointed out at her memorial service, Ellen’s name was “virtually synonymous with Palo Alto’s bicycle improvements,” earning her a number of recognitions, including the League’s Paul Dudley White Award in 1996. Just last May, Ellen contributed to our “Why I Ride” series.

Click here to read about her impact in her own words. (Photo by Palo Alto Weekly)  

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