The City of Duluth is testing a protected bike lane in its downtown, and officials anticipate a learning curve as steep as some of the city's hills.

The 13-foot wide lane, which runs for three blocks along the lower side of West Michigan Street, is only a pilot project. It will be removed Aug. 5 and its results analyzed. The lane includes a 3-foot buffer zone with flexible posts and 5-foot east-west lanes for cyclists.

The test is being conducted by the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council, a regional planning agency that deals with transportation needs in the Duluth-Superior area. Officials hope the lane, while modest, will encourage more discussion of bike use as a transportation choice.

The bike lane, which officially opened last week, serves as a natural extension of the Cross City Trail and ends at the Duluth Transportation Center, which has a bike storage facility.

"Duluth is a very active outdoor town. Our sense is that the population is supportive of bicycling as transportation," said James Gittemeier, principal planner at the council. "However, adding lanes and taking away parking spaces — we haven't got an answer to that yet. This is something new. There is definitely hesitation, at a minimum."

Much of the intent of the pilot project is to introduce people to the concept of the protected bike lane, which is an on-street lane separated from motor vehicles by physical barriers such as bollard posts, curbs, planters or even parked cars.

Supporters say the lanes are a best practice in bikeway design, creating a more comfortable and predictable transportation environment for people on bikes, as well as for those walking and driving nearby.

Through the test period, organizers will guide bike groups through the lane and promote it during events like the upcoming Sidewalk Days Festival. The YMCA is providing a bike fleet. Organizers also will conduct a survey asking who might use it long-term, whether cyclists and motorists feel safe and whether the location satisfies their needs.

"We're not exactly sure what success looks like at this point," said Chris Belden, a planner for the council.

The project was funded with a $20,000 grant from the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. Organizers hope to have an initial report on the project completed in August.