Ellen Fletcher — Silicon Valley’s Bicycling Hero

by David Burckhard

Palo Alto and the larger Silicon Valley can be proud of its nationally-renowned, bicycle-boosting heritage, much of which is centered on the late Ellen Fletcher. Nearly 40 years ago, forward-looking individuals recognized bicycling as an activity capable of transcending its simply-recreational image. Over time, it slowly coalesced into grassroots organizations in and around Silicon Valley. Fletcher would become the most recognized leader who advocated for a future beyond the near-exclusive, car-centric model of the day.

The former Palo Alto Councilwoman was an effective voice in first educating city and regional planners about the benefits of bicycling as a significant factor to reduce congestion. She also advocated for an increased bicycle infrastructure, not just in Palo Alto, but throughout the Peninsula and South Bay cities. Fletcher began bicycling to work in London as a teenage refugee after escaping Nazi Germany.

Upon rejoining her parents in the United States, she moved to Palo Alto where, as a mother, she served as the safety chair of the local PTA. It was then that her bicycling advocacy began in earnest, as she pushed for better traffic control around schools to ensure safe student bicycling. She rejuvenated the Santa Clara Bicycle Association (now named the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition) to address and boost bicycling in the area.

Serving on Palo Alto’s City Council, she wielded her more public position to convince Southern Pacific to allow bicycles on board what is now the Caltrain line between San Francisco and the South Bay. It was Fletcher and the people who rallied around her that helped open a number of formerly restricted roadways, including Foothill Expressway in Santa Clara County, to bicyclists in the 1980s. Today, that expressway, along with other formerly off-limit throughways, serve hundreds of commuters and recreational riders daily.

As the dedicated force behind so many of the opportunities that bicyclists enjoy today, Fletcher was recognized and awarded innumerably, locally and nationally, for her unwavering commitment to the cause. The senior bicyclist, who, even during her fight with cancer, could be seen pedaling her bicycle through town, passed away in 2012 at the age of 82. Palo Alto’s Bryant Street, the country’s first “Bicycle Boulevard”, is named in her honor. Recently, the second-highest ranked middle school in the state (previous known as Terman Middle School in Palo Alto) was renamed to honor the former PTA mom for expanding bicycling rights and infrastructure in the Bay Area and beyond.

For residents old and new, some of Silicon Valley’s top cycling trails are detailed below:

San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail – Forms a paved, 5-mile, north-to-south route from the large parking lot at its trailhead in Santa Clara near Monroe Street and San Tomas Expressway. It also runs past NVIDIA headquarters, crossing beneath U.S. 101, passing Great America, Levi’s Stadium, the Santa Clara Convention Center, all prior to crossing beneath Highway 237 and connecting to the San Francisco Bay Trail.

Stevens Creek Trail – A gem of a trail, popular among both commuter and recreational users, this highly upgraded trail now avoids all street-grade crossings. In addition, it offers scenic views along its 6-mile, riparian course between the San Francisco Bay Trail in Shoreline Park, Dale Avenue in the North, and Heatherstone Way in the South. The long-range vision for this trail is to extend its southern terminus to the creek’s source at Steven Creek Reservoir in the Cupertino Foothills.

Guadalupe River Trail – Was fully made possible in conjunction with the completion of the Guadalupe River flood project. As with all major, multi-use trails in the Silicon Valley, this one offers river views from its southern terminus near the interchange of highways 280 and 87 in Downtown San Jose along its 12.5-mile route to the bay water’s edge in Alviso. After passing through the heart of San Jose and along parkways, it passes within a block’s distance of San Jose’s airport. The trail serves as a spine for a network of several other trails and spurs.

Coyote Creek Trail – There are actually two separate trails with a similar name; each of them offering differing advantages. The northern portion is more urban but with open spaces and begins in North San Jose at Charcot Avenue near Highway 880 and travels northward, ending where McCarthy Boulevard intersects with Dixon Landing Road in Milpitas. The southern portion connects San Jose, near the intersection of Tully and Senter Road, with the Anderson Lake Visitor Center in the town of Morgan Hill along a scenic 22-mile pathway. This is, by far, the valley’s longest and mostly rural multi-use trail. Used by a few commuters, the trail is popular with walkers, joggers, and family-bicyclists along its northern portion and by experienced bicyclists who make the out-and-back a regular weekend ride as they ride across Coyote Creek, lakes and fishing ponds, golf links, a model aircraft club, orchards, and suburban parks.