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Rent or own? The new sharing economy values access over ownership

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Sharing-economy businesses range from a corporate model, where a corporation owns the item being shared – like Zipcar, Netflix, and sports clubs – to the peer-to-peer model, which includes businesses like Airbnb and RelayRides, for sharing accommodations and cars, respectively.

The third category includes companies with a much looser definition of what constitutes a transaction. For example, there is CouchSurfing, where no money changes hands and travelers are given access to a local host's spare bedroom or a couch, plus their local host's companionship and knowledge; or Trade School, a network of barter-for-knowledge schools, where teachers propose classes and barter, instead of charging money.

Access versus ownership

The trend toward having access rather than owning – be it couch, lathe, or hammock – started with cars. Zipcar is usually cited as the first example of an American company founded on the sharing model. It now has more than 730,000 members and 11,000 vehicles in urban markets in the US, Canada, and England. The $300 million company charges $60 annually for its "Occasional Driving Plan" and there's a one-time $25 application fee. Reservation rates vary depending on location, day of the week, and the type of vehicle reserved. In Boston, for example, reservation rates start at $8 an hour and $73 a day, while in San Francisco, it's $8 per hour and $78 a day.

Car sharing is the gateway to the sharing economy, says Mr. Gorenflo: "Automobile ownership is a linchpin of the consumer economy. I think once we change our relationship to cars, we change our relationship to everything. People can get their head around car sharing. When you try it and it works out for you, you're like, 'What else can I share?' "

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