05/12/2009 03:07 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

E-bike: Car-Free Encouragement or Bike Balkanizer?

Perhaps this has happened to you: Pedal-pushing along the bike path, lost in a nature reverie or thoughts of what's for dinner, you hear a slight buzzing sound in your left ear. Before your brain can help you identify the buzz, you are speedily passed, on the left, by a swift and thrumming electric bike.

All in a rush, as you eat the e-bike's dust, you think three things: 1) Wow, you can go pretty fast on those things. 2) I'd be at work already. 3) Should that guy/gal be allowed on the bike path?

A whopping 21 million electric bikes were sold in China during 2007, and Chinese e-bike manufacturers are looking to export markets to keep their sales buoyant as domestic demand becomes saturated.

That means more, and less-expensive, e-bikes may be in stores such as Best Buy and your field of vision soon.

Some bike advocates maintain this is a good thing, and may be particularly helpful in getting more women on bikes. The theory goes, that in the UK, for example, where just 20 percent of women ride while over 40 percent of them own a bike, an e-bike experience with its low-sweat quotient could coax more women to bike, and bike commute. (E-bikes do nothing about helmet hair, of course).

Extending your range and getting a little assist on long or grueling hills, especially if you are regularly hauling your dog, your kids, or a lot of your stuff, is a great thing. Gruber Assist just introduced an electric-assist system that "hides" in the seat tube - making those clunky electric motor attachments possibly a thing of the past.

However, electric bikes, which have the end result of making those of us that have them go faster than the bulk of bike traffic, can create an us versus them situation.

If you are happily cruising in the bike lane using nothing but your own human power, the guy or gal whizzing by you at top speed on an e-bike may seem like a jerk. A lazy jerk to boot. This division creates what one bike advocate calls bike Balkanization. In other words, a splintering of the bike communities that in some towns have been fairly tightly-knit.

But just like drivers that must learn to accommodate all sizes of vehicles on the roads, getting along with e-bikers seems like something we'll all need to do, especially if putting a little power into the pedals helps give us more sustainable transport systems. Ride on!

Read more about electric bikes on TreeHugger
::Go Cycle: The Electric Assist Bike We Have Been Waiting For?
::The $350 Electric Commuter Bike
::A Resolution for 2009: Around the World in an Electric Bike
::University of Washington to Create Electric Bike Share Program
::Wayback Machine 1947: Electric Bike
::Schwinn"s New Line of Electric Bikes

Read more from Graham Hill on Huffington Post
::Put Down That CAFO Pork Chop
::Your Ungreen Brain Needs More Nature
::Should We All Just Drive 35?
::Let"s Do Big Lunch
::Shouldn"t the G20 Just Stay Home, Skype, and Tweet?
::Mass Transit Makes You Skinny