Palo Alto's bicycle pioneer Ellen Fletcher dies

Longtime councilwoman, known for environmental leadership, succumbs to lung cancer at 83

Ellen Fletcher, a former Palo Alto City Councilwoman who spearheaded the city's transformation into a nationally recognized bike-friendly community, died Wednesday, Nov. 7, after a battle with lung cancer, according to her friends and family. She was 83.

Fletcher, whose name has become virtually synonymous with Palo Alto's bicycle improvements, had been involved in bike-related issues for more than half a century. Her political activism began in the 1960s, when she took part in the grassroots campaign to prevent the expansion of Oregon Expressway, said her daughter, Terry Fletcher. She remained committed to local politics long after that, often advocating for bicycle improvements and various environmental causes.

In the early 1970s, she had served as safety chair at Fairmeadow Elementary School, where her son was a student. She continued to be a fierce advocate for bicycling and other environmental causes in 1977. Her leadership was instrumental in getting the city to launch the city's household-hazardous-waste program, pass anti-smoking laws and establish Palo Alto as a "nuclear-free zone." She was also an enthusiastic campaigner for local candidates, Terry Fletcher recalled.

"When I was young, when I'd say that I need a new pair of jeans or something, often her answer was, 'After the election,'" Terry Fletcher said. "It's perhaps not a coincidence that she died just one day after the election, even if she wasn't directly involved in it."

A Berlin native whose parents divorced when she was very young, Fletcher spent her early childhood in a series of foster homes and in a Jewish orphanage. With the Nazis coming to power, she was deported from Germany because her father was a Polish citizen, Terry Fletcher said. Though she was slated to go to Poland, she was able change course and reach London in 1938 thanks to the Kindertransport program, which focused on shipping Jewish children out of Nazi Germany and into Great Britain.

It was in London where she discovered bicycling. In a 2011 interview with the Weekly, she recalled coming to England and seeing that everyone out there was biking. She fell in love with bicycling and brought her passion to New York City, where she immigrated in 1946.

As a 17-year-old student at Hunter College, Fletcher rode a bike on campus year-round, a rare sight at the time. She told the Weekly that she was the "only one in college who had a bike on campus."

Fletcher moved to the Peninsula shortly after her college graduation, settling first in Menlo Park and later in Palo Alto. She lobbied persistently for biking improvements as a volunteer in the school district and as a council member.

She had told the Weekly that her aim in the 1970s was to put bicyclists on the radar of policy makers, who at the time were concerned exclusively with cars. Thanks in large part to her efforts, bicycle commuting became part of the city's transportation planning in the 1980s, according to Ward Winslow's "Palo Alto: Centennial History." The Bryant Street "bike boulevard" opened in 1982.

"That's really been the national philosophy all these years -- we've always put concentration on moving more cars faster," Fletcher told the Weekly in July 2011, recalling the late 1970s. "It's really the wrong policy."

Her legislative efforts didn't stop with bicycling improvements. As a resident of Greenhouse, an apartment complex on San Antonio Road, Fletcher once hung her clothes out to dry on a clothesline and was told by apartment officials that this violated the building's policy. She led the city in changing the law so that apartments would not be able to prevent residents from drying their clothes outside.

"They messed with the wrong person there," Terry Fletcher recalled.

The city recognized her leadership on bicycling in 2002, when the council officially named Bryant Street as the "Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard." Her efforts helped the city attain the designation of "Bicycle Friendly Community" from the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington, D.C.-based organization.

Her long list of awards includes the Palo Alto Civic League Citizen of the Year (1975); the Women's Transportation Seminar Woman of the Year (1989); the League of American Bicyclists Volunteer of the Year (1996); and the Bay Area Air Quality District Clean Air Champion Award (1997).

Fletcher's local legacy is expected to stretch for decades as the city embarks on a slew of other bicycle projects, including trails, a bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 and new bicycle boulevards modeled after Bryant Street. In July, the city approved an ambitious new bike master plan that aims to make Palo Alto one of the nation's top bicycling destination. Even at 83 and suffering from cancer, Fletcher rode her bicycle to City Hall to attend public hearings on the plan and to advocate for bike improvements.

Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier called Fletcher a "hero" for her advocacy of bike issues. Drekmeier recalled attending meetings all over the Peninsula in recent years and seeing Fletcher there. No matter where the meetings took place, she got there by bike, he said. He also remembered an episode in which Fletcher received a ticket for running a stop sign while on her bike. She had no qualms about telling a local newspaper about the ticket, Drekmeier said. She thought it would send a good message -- even elected officials need to follow the law.

"I grew up riding the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard and I thought about her every time," Drekmeier said. "I really appreciate what she did for our community."

Though Fletcher owned a car, a 1964 Plymouth Valiant, she was famous for almost never using it. The site of her pedaling through the city streets has been a common one for decades. She continued the tradition even in her early 80s, while afflicted with lung cancer. A lifelong champion of bicycling, she told the Weekly that she hopes to demonstrate to people that just about everyone can do it.

"I'm 82 years old who had lung surgery," she said in July 2011. "You don't have to be a young athlete to ride a bike. Everyone can do it at any age."

Information about memorial services for Fletcher will be posted as it becomes available. Donations in her memory can be made to the Silicon Valley Coalition, 1922 The Alameda, Ste. 420, San Jose, CA 95126,

Gennady Sheyner


Like this comment
Posted by bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 8, 2012 at 4:24 pm

bru is a registered user.

there is already a thread for this a few headlines down.

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Posted by Ronna Devincenzi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Ellen was terrific. Young at heart! Such an inspiration.

I remember how fun it was to be pedaling Martin Krieg's Bus-Cycle, downtown Palo Alto when Yoriko Kishimoto was mayor, and Yoriko organized the Palo Alto Walks and Rolls event.

That bus-bike was huge, and Ellen, the trooper she was, was driving it, with about 10 of us pedaling away! Along with Gary Fazzino whose funeral was today, Ellen was an institution that will be greatly missed. The community is the better for her contributions, and I am grateful that she was CAADA rep from council, when she was serving during that time. Long, long ago!

Like this comment
Posted by RIP
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm

RIP Ellen. A community leader way ahead of her time.

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Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Someone should organize an Ellen Fletcher annual ride. Maybe I should do it?

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Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Ellen was also a huge supporter of the creation of our recycling ethic in Palo Alto. As we worked in the 70s and 80s to build our recycling and composting infrastructure, she was in so many ways the "heart" of the effort. While others might muse over policy impacts, she had the simple gift of knowing what was right. So much of Ellen for me was her seen in "her living life by example" - you want bikeways - let me show you how I use them every day. The same showed through her recycling ethic. So much of what we created in Palo Alto's environmental leadership could not have been done without her. Ellen's friendly smile will be missed by anyone who rides a bike and cares for the environment. We will miss you so. xxx

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph Kott
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2012 at 6:00 pm

I am saddened to learn this news. Ellen Fletcher was a thoughtful, enlightened, and inspirational civic leader in Palo Alto for many years. Ellen was far ahead of her time in advocating years ago for the bicycle mode of transportation. All across America, from Palo Alto and Davis to Manhattan and many places in between, Ellen's vision of the emergence of bicycling as a clean, healthy, quiet, and efficient alternative to the automobile has become a reality.

In the sometimes rough and tumble of Palo Alto civic life, Ellen was a model of civility and principled leadership. I was so moved last year when she bicycled across town here in Palo Alto to attend my PhD award celebration. Ellen's passing is a great loss for the Palo Alto community. God bless her lovely soul. My deep sympathies go out to her family and many, many friends.

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Posted by Penny
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Ellen was an inspiration to me and so many other people. A little more than eight months ago I was at a meeting with Ellen. She had bicycled there--in her 80's with lung cancer, she found the strength to bike to that meeting. I'll never forget that.

Her thoughtful willingness to listen and really hear others, her unwavering commitment to community were a model for me. Her love of bicycling was infectious. I will miss her very much.

May her memory be a her life was a blessing on us all.

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Posted by Ducatigirl
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 8, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Ducatigirl is a registered user.

There is not enough one can say to convey the loss to the community. But I will say, that this is one person I would wish could have been immortal, so that all her good work and inspiration could go on forever.

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Posted by Left of Boom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 9, 2012 at 9:13 am

Left of Boom is a registered user.

Ellen Fletcher was an inspiration for many bicyclists. I remember when she received her ticket for running a stop sign and she freely admitted she rolled through it.

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Posted by David
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 9, 2012 at 10:28 am

I echo many of the sentiments expressed above by others. She was an extraordinary, dedicated person. I met Ellen just a few months before her death; she was suffering so much from her lung cancer, yet was still engaged in dinner conversation, and was still riding her bicycle.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2012 at 10:42 am

Thank you PA Online for writing this article. I loved learning about Ellen's background and accomplishments. Our family all bikes to work and school. Clearly we have Ellen to thank for her dedication to making this possible. May she always be remembered for her extraordinary actions.

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Posted by milefive
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 9, 2012 at 10:54 am

milefive is a registered user.

Thank you Ellen Fletcher for all you have done! I grew up in Palo Alto during the 1970s and clearly remember hearing about Ellen Fletcher and her bicycle activism (my parents talked about her and Cesar Chavez's grape boycott often). I rode my bike to school every day and still ride it as often as I can. God bless you, Ellen Fletcher.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 9, 2012 at 11:06 am

Our city has lost a truly good woman. They don't make 'em like Ellen anymore. Rest in peace dear Ellen and hopefully your legacy will live on as future generations look to the great example you set. We need forward thinkers like Ellen more than ever now.

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Posted by Scott McMahon
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 9, 2012 at 11:45 am

Ellen was an example to us all. I will miss her. She coaxed great things into existence. She was courageous. I am so glad to have known her and benefitted from her generosity. Thank you Ellen for everything you did for us.

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Posted by Cynthia Handy
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 9, 2012 at 11:50 am

Thanks for the bike paths to & from Hewlett Packard and thoughout Palo Alto. Riding in a lane considered safe was a challenge but very useful for many years. I though my children to ride to local schools to & from, and we knew they enjoyed the space allocated for bikes.

Like this comment
Posted by Chou
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Nov 9, 2012 at 11:55 am

One of the genuine real people.

Like this comment
Posted by Debbie Ford-Scriba
a resident of another community
on Nov 9, 2012 at 6:30 pm

It was doubly sad to learn the news of Ellen Fletcher's passing at Gary Fazzino's funeral. Palo Alto has lost two icons. I admired Ellen for her consistency, her tenacity, her practicality and the courage she exhibited in being exactly who she was.

Like this comment
Posted by Suzie Stewart
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 10, 2012 at 11:33 am

Ellen was one of the great people of this world, consistent in her values, kind and patient. She survived the holocaust by being sent away to England by her parents who wanted to save her life. She was one of the children on the" Kindertren". Years ago she shared her story with many students wo were studying that horrific period. At the Childrens' Theatre, a group of young people, working with the late Michael Litfin, planned to incorporate Ellen's story with those of other "kinder" who survived, hoping to write and produce their own play. It is sad that the project was never completed. Ellen often asked about it when we talked.
Her courageous life is inspirational. The fact that she was biking all the way to Shoreline for political events despite her lung cancer, amazed many of us.. She was a most valued political ally, but more importantly, a beloved friend to my late husband Jim and me for over 40 years.
My love to Linda, Terry, Jeff and ther families. My family will forever hold her dear
Suzie Stewart

Like this comment
Posted by Dorothy Bender
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 11, 2012 at 2:24 am

Goodbye Ellen. I loved your stories about your past and I appreciate your sound advice many years ago when you saw me cycling without wearing a helmet.

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Posted by Marcos A. Tebrich
a resident of another community
on Nov 11, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Goodbye Aunt Ellen. Thanks for you life inspirational.I´m sad, and pleasure for your emails with your wise and beautiful words.

Adios querida tía Ellen. Gracias por tu inspiradora vida. Estoy triste y agradecido por sus emails con sus sabias y hermosas palabras.

Marcos A. Tebrich
Chile / South America

Like this comment
Posted by Lisa Van Dusen
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 12, 2012 at 12:34 pm

What a huge loss for Palo Alto and big shoes (and pedals) to fill. Ellen was one of the most cheerful, tireless (literally and figuratively) people I knew. She was not afraid to be different, she was persistent, and singleminded yet open-minded. Ellen was a great role model as a leader who forged huge changes in a single area -- bicycling -- yet was also a strong overall leader at the same time. She ultimately voted with her feet as a living example of what is possible, cycling just about everywhere she went with a smile on her face.

She will be missed. I send condolences to Ellen's family.

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Posted by Ducatigirl
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Ducatigirl is a registered user.

I never knew before Friday that this dear lady had been a Holocaust survivor on top of it all!

Like this comment
Posted by Dorothy Fadiman
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 4, 2013 at 7:40 am

Paul George (Peace and Justice Center Director) and I are co-creating a gathering for the fall of 2013, an event which includes a film in which Ellen Fletcher plays an important role. I would like to be in touch with the individual(s) who wrote this article.
Thank you.
Dorothy Fadiman
Documentary filmmaker

Like this comment
Posted by Joe Breeze
a resident of another community
on Mar 1, 2014 at 10:56 am

The Los Altos History Museum is hoping to show Ellen Fletcher's Breezer Villager at their Pedal Power! exhibition (May-October 2014). Does anyone know where the bike is?

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