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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  1/1/2003

A Bike Boulevard Named Ellen

What kind of cyclist gets a precedent-setting, bicyclist friendly Class III roadway named after her?

The kind that has diligently campaigned for cyclists' rights for nearly 30 years. The kind that rode her bicycle advocacy to an astonishing 12.5 years (from 1977 to 1989) as a Palo Alto City Councilmember. The kind that rides her bike nearly everywhere, leaving her car in the garage for all but a handful of days each year.

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 (PABAC, pronounced "payback").

One of PABAC's original campaigns was for 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."

On December 2, 2002, PABAC's current chairman, Paul Goldstein, presented Ellen with the first official sign renaming the bike boulevard in her honor.

The last time I wrote about Ellen's accomplishments was some 18 years ago. So I decided it was high time I interviewed her again for my first BikeCal.com profile in a series about cyclists over the age of 60.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at her south Palo Alto apartment was that she was wearing Shimano cycling shoes around the house. Indeed, Ellen is far more comfortable on a bicycle than just about anywhere else. "Every time I'm on the bike, I'm so grateful I'm doing it. It makes me feel so good," she says.

That's quite a statement for a 74-year-old woman with a heart condition. But Ellen has made cycling a significant part of her life since childhood.

Living history on a bike

Born Jewish in Germany in 1928, at age 10 Ellen found herself on an "orphan train" headed for a foster home in northern England. Although all the other kids there had bikes, "my foster mother said no bicycle for me," she recalls. Not for long, though. Thanks to the same tenacious persistence that has won concessions for California cyclists, Ellen ended up riding her foster mother's own bike around the English countryside.

After the war, Ellen reunited with her parents in New York, where she bike commuted to classes at Hunter College. At first the dean refused to allow her to bring her bike inside during winter, but she won special dispensation to park in the basement. Cops told her to get off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. People along her route began to recognize her, pointing her out as "that girl who rides the bicycle."

In 1953 she returned to England to visit her foster parents. "I was so bored with nothing to do there so I decided to rent a one-speed for tuppence a day." She proceeded to ride the 200 miles to London, staying at youth hostels along the way. "I just kept going west, through Wales, Lancashire, the Lake Country, over steep cobblestone hills of Liverpool, up through Scotland by Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye." The whole trip took three weeks, "the most wonderful vacation of my life. Riding a bike was faster than walking. And when I did have to walk up the hills, there was no disadvantage."

Back home in the States, Ellen joined American Youth Hostels and did tours. But her cycling life pretty much ended when she married and started a family. Then came the gas shortage of the mid-70s. She dusted off her three-speed and found herself back in the saddle for good.

Advocacy pioneering days

After taking the reins of PABAC, Ellen focused on an abundance of issues for cyclists, including the need for bicycle parking facilities in downtown Palo Alto. When the Santa Clara Valley Bicycling Association (predecessor to the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, aka SVBC) asked for her help, Ellen wrote a position paper on the subject. She went on to expand the paper into a small book, Bicycle Parking, still cited as the definitive reference on the subject in cities all over the world.

"I worked with the Commission's consultant to rewrite the [Palo Alto's Comprehensive] Plan after the first draft was rejected." Ellen remembers. "He took my concepts directly from the book. By the time it came back to the Council, I was an elected Council member. It passed in 1978."

As Council member Ellen took on even more cycling issues. Case in point: travel reimbursement for cycling city employees. "About 1980 I read a letter to the editor praising city employees who arrived for energy audits on bicycles," she says. "The writer felt it demonstrated the city's commitment to conservation. I called the auditor cited and asked him if he was reimbursed. He told me he had asked for the cost of tires and tubes but his boss wouldn't hear of it."

Ellen decided to put the city to the test. She rode to a League of California Cities conference in San Francisco and put in a claim for four cents a mile. "Nothing happened for months," she recalls. It turns out that the city had no intention of denying her claim. Fearful that cycling would take too much time from the job and that there would be injuries, they were preparing an official policy. In the end, the policy ruled that department heads must approve bicycle use and, if the cyclist didn't have a helmet, the city would provide one.

Thereafter, as long as she sat on the Council, Ellen continued to collect reimbursement for commuting on city time. City employees are still enjoying the results, including higher reimbursement rates in line with other increases for similar expenses.

Recognition

Throughout her cycling life, Ellen Fletcher has received so many awards that she often loses count! Her resume lists over 10 honors dating back to the early 70s, including:
  • Palo Alto Civic League Citizen of the Year
  • Both the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Certificate of Achievement and Award of Merit
  • The Women's Transportation Seminar Woman of the Year
  • RIDES for Bay Area Commuters Award of Appreciation
  • The League of American Bicyclists (LAB) Volunteer of the Year award
  • The Bay Area Air Quality District Clean Air Champion award

And now they've gone and named the country's first bike boulevard after her!

In the 21st century, Ellen is still campaigning for cyclists' rights as SVBC's Vice-President and editor of its "Spinning Crank" newsletter. And she's still riding, albeit strictly on the flats, on her faithful three-speed. She remains an active member of Western Wheelers, however. And still keeps nearly every bike she has owned since the 70s.

When she suffered a heart attack over 20 years ago, Ellen's doctor informed her that her level of physical activity had prevented a massive coronary by forming collateral blood vessels that prevented her arteries from blocking up. It's one of the reasons she keeps pedaling.

"Bicyclists stay young longer," she believes, partly because she is constantly surprised at how old many of her fellow cyclists turn out to be. "I envision myself still being on my bike well into my 80s and 90s. I can't envision existing without riding a bike."

Photos courtesy Dave Ziegler

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net



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