A Nice Ride bike Flickr Photo: tsuacctnt

The popular bicycle sharing service Nice Ride Minnesota is rolling out the first automatic key dispenser in the world. It’s installed on Nicollet Mall, outside the Hyatt Hotel.

“The benefit of a key is that you don’t have to go up to the touchscreen at all. You can walk straight up to a bike, insert the key and ride away in seconds,” said executive director Bill Dossett.

Keys have been available before. But Nice Ride MN members typically had to join online and wait for a key in the mail. Members already benefit from a 60-minute use period, double the nonmember time limit for taking out a bike.

But the new technology means you can also become a member online and pick up a key at the new kiosk, Dossett said. He hopes an expansion of the key option will make bike transportation even easier for tourists and other casual users.

“You’re going to see this same technology rolling out in Seattle next month, and I believe you’ll see it around the world after that,” said Dossett.

The new terminals are built by 8D Technology, the company that originally built part of the bike share system.

The announcement comes almost a year after Nice Ride MN noted a “material breach” with equipment supplier PBSC of Montreal. PBSC filed for bankruptcy months later, but the effect on Nice Ride at the time was said to be minimal.

Dossett said this first-ever key kiosk is an important milestone, showing that at least some of the founding makers are ready to continue developing what is proving to be a successful system.

How successful? Nice Ride trips are up 40 percent so far this year over 2013, with the same number of stations and bikes as last year. Nice Ride is hoping to get 20 of the new instant-key stations up and running. “We don’t know exactly when they’re coming, so I can’t guarantee that we’ll get more out this year, but I hope we will,” Dossett said.

Minnesota’s Nice Ride season is scheduled to run through Nov. 2 this year. Founded in 2010, it has offered 1,500 bikes at 170 stations this year.

The city of St. Paul hopes the private sector will have new ideas to improve one of its most basic public services: snow plowing.

As part of a pilot project, a non-profit startup called Civic Consulting Minnesota is helping the city develop ways to measure “what a good outcome for a winter driving experience looks like.” It’s expected to make recommendations before, hopefully, the first flakes fly in November.

At a budget committee meeting Wednesday, city council members also urged the public works department to come up with a plan to improve the winter walking experience.

Private property owners are responsible for clearing snow from the sidewalks in front of their buildings, leading to an uneven landscape for pedestrians. Snow plows often make matters worse when they heap icy mountains at the corners of residential streets.

“We have snow piles that this year someone will fall off and break their hip and die. And their relatives ought to sue us,” Council Member Dave Thune said, at the end of a lengthy rant on the subject.

“Dave, stop digging,” Council President Kathy Lantry interrupted, trying to move on to other parts of the agenda.

“We’re not digging. That’s the problem,” he shot back.

“Then find four votes and find the money,” Lantry retorted.

Exactly how much it would cost the city to clear snow from the corners of sidewalks isn’t clear, but the answers seems to be: A lot. The public works department says there are about 40,000 intersections in the city. Clearing them all would mean a doubling the city’s workforce, Lantry said.

A Minneapolis City Council panel is recommending the city scrap a long-standing requirement that bars and restaurants have designated men’s and women’s restrooms.

A similar measure is under consideration at the state level. A proposed change to the state building code that would take effect in January would give all businesses the option to use unisex bathrooms instead. The change would apply only to bathrooms with one toilet stall and a locking door.

Dylan Flunker told council members he supports the change — as someone who’s transgender and as a father trying to potty-train his 3-year-old daughter.

“Men’s restrooms are not known for their cleanliness or always their baby-changing tables,” he said. “Single-use bathrooms that are accessible for families greatly increase the capacity of families to be out in public with their young children.”

The full city council will vote on the ordinance change next week. It will also consider a resolution encouraging businesses to make the transition to gender-neutral bathrooms.