Nice Ride Minnesota maintains a fleet of green bicycles throughout Minneapolis and much of St. Paul.
You can pick up or drop off a Nice Ride bike at any of several dozen automated stations. The bikes are heavily used, the stations are well maintained, and the program is growing after three successful years. And although most of the capital expenditures for building and expanding the system came from a variety of grants and donations, operating costs have been covered by usage fees (between 50% and 80% of operations) and station sponsorships (most of the balance). See section 6 of the 2012 mid-season annual report. So far, the Nice Ride system shows signs of being financially sustainable without large public subsidies, which is very promising.
A system like Nice Ride raises a lot of tough system design questions. Where should you build the stations? How big should each station be? How much should you charge per ride, per hour, per season, or per some other unit of measure? How do you balance support for high-traffic areas against equitable availability for as many citizens as possible? Another interesting problem to consider: every evening, a truck drives around, taking bikes away from some stations and dropping bikes off at others. How do you minimize the net flow of bicycles from some locations to others during a typical day, or should you even try?
These issues are clearly on the minds of people running Nice Ride. In their recently posted draft report System Optimization and Next Steps, they discuss where to build new stations, which stations they might want to move, questions of equitable access, and how net profits at popular station locations can be used to spread the system more widely to increase overall usage.
If I were designing a Nice Ride-like system from scratch or tweaking an existing system, I would want more than a spreadsheet of usage numbers. I would want an interactive simulation tool to let me try out various scenarios under assumptions of traffic patterns, usage rates, station locations and sizes, etc. This project's goal is to build such a tool.
Some steps you might take on this project:
Good thinking early in this project could lead to models and tools effective enough that they could be useful for Nice Ride or similar organizations. That's a goal to keep in mind throughout.
(Want a little speculation to go with your comps? Look forward a few years: what happens if you combine these bicycles with a fleet of self-driving cars and legislation that allows those cars to drive themselves from place to place?)