I bike to work over the same route every day. Much of my trip is on Bryant Street aka "The Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard." The Contraption Captain has met Ellen. She's a little old lady on a Breezer bike and yes, she campaigned tirelessly while on the city council for the creation of this thoroughfare from Menlo Park-ish to Mountain View-ish. Cars use this road also, but they have to get off of it frequently as it is blocked off at multiple cross streets. There are a lot of 2-way stops where those on Bryant have the right of way and the x-street traffic waits. I love Bryant Street. The houses are all kinds, humble to crazy fancy, older with shake roofs to modern with metal roofs and solar panels. When I get on Bryant Street I stop worrying someone will run me over and I enjoy the company of a huge number of other bicyclists who also use it as their main thoroughfare.
Yesterday evening I was on my way home and just coming up on Embarcadero when I saw someone with a very charming diy reflector arrangement. I complimented her as I went by. Then the wheels started to turn, slowly. Old lady? Check. Breezer? Check. Handmade bumper sticker saying "Bikes: a quiet voice against oil wars"? Check. I circle back.
Me: Are you Ellen Fletcher?
EF: [politely] Why yes, I am. How did you know?
Me: My boyfriend met you once and said you had a blue Breezer with a milk carton strapped to the back.
Me: I wanted to tell you that I come this way every day, twice a day, and it's my favorite part of my ride. It's beautiful and wide and I never feel worried about being hit here. Thank-you so much for making this boulevard a reality. So many people love it, kids and commuters and racers and walkers and runners and roller-bladers, it's such a special road.
EF: [speaks carefully, pausing between words] "You're too kind."
She goes on to tell me that she is so glad to be back on her bike. That a few weeks past she had surgery for lung cancer. I inhale sharply and say something dumb like "I am so sorry." She says in the same calm voice "I'm 80 years old and I have had a very good life." Her tone is so gentle and peaceful but the import of what she was saying made my eyes well up with tears and I don't speak for a moment because I didn't know what to say, what is there to say?
She tells me that she wants to bike to El Camino hospital for her cancer treatment but is not sure she can make it and also she is supposed to arrive very rested and can't be breathing hard. We talk about the bike route Mt View to El Camino, the Stevens Creek Parkway. It's not nearly as awesome as Bryant St but does the job, I ride it to get Rapunzel at preschool. We come to where she is turning off (medical office) and she tells me how nice it was to meet me and to please say hello to my boyfriend. I tell her that it was a great honour to meet her and I wish her good riding and I am pretty sure she looks pleased.
Fast forward to November 7 2012 and Ellen Fletcher is gone from Bryant Street and from Palo Alto and from California and from this world. She is gone and I know I am not the only bicyclist who will notice her absence. I feel (and I hope it is not out of line to say this) that Ellen Fletcher believed in us and believed in bicycling long before it was fashionable --- and maybe it still is not fashionable. I think that she believed there was something important about getting to where you were going without a car and that she thought we deserved to travel on our bicycles without being afraid or intimidated by automobiles and trucks.
When someone dies, I often read that the "person's spirit lives on." I don't believe that. The memory of the people we knew, who are gone, lives with us but their spirit disappears when they disappear. Ellen Fletcher defies this a little in that she is gone but this thing she created, this idea she believed in is still here and I rode it in to work this morning and will ride it home, along with many others, this evening.
A bicycle boulevard like Bryant Street makes me think of Pele playing goalie in soccer. The saves she makes are fleeting and sometimes not even noticed. It is when one gets by her that people take note and then they disapprove. It is impossible to say how many children are alive today because they had a safe way to ride to school, impossible to say how many grown-up arteries are safe from heart attack and stroke because adults were able to get cardio exercise on their way into the office --- but I challenge anyone to argue that that number is zero which means the creation of Bryant Street has saved lives.
Some lucky few of us save lives in our lifetimes. Ellen Fletcher's creation will save lives even after she is gone. How many of us can say that about the mark we will leave on the world?
So, Ellen Fletcher. Good-bye. So long. Thank-you for every beautiful ride. I wish you well.