Posted Online: Oct. 24, 2012, 10:58 am

Yours and mine: The 'sharing economy' is changing how we travel

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By Becky Langdon

More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Laura Hartman shares a guest room in her home with out-of-town visitors through an online service called AirBnB. Laura and her son, Theo, welcome the experience.
Photo: George McCrory, University of Iowa Office of Sustainability
University of Iowa students checkout a Ford Focus Zipcar.
If you've ever borrowed a neighbor's leaf blower, shared tomatoes from your garden or car-pooled to work, you've already participated in collaborative consumption. It's a practice where instead of buying something outright, many people share it among themselves instead. The concept may not sound new, but it's getting a new face and new life thanks to 21st-century technology.

Peer-to-peer online marketplaces that enable consumers to share virtually anything — from cars to clothing, bicycles to toys and movies — have been gaining in popularity the last several years. These services attract people who want to save money, want to connect with others who have similar interests, or simply want to reduce their environmental impact. Whatever the motivation, collaborative consumption, or the "sharing economy," is exploding. And two of the most interesting examples have reached this part of the country.

A borrowed home away from home

Founded in 2008, is a website that allows people all over the world to list their homes, apartments, extra bedrooms, or other private property for rent to travelers. You can choose to rent your space out while you're at home and meet your guests, or you can rent your home only when you're out of town, monetizing your property while you're away.

Augustana College professor Laura Hartman has both hosted guests and rented property through Airbnb. She says, "What I like about Airbnb is that it's an alternative economy, that we don't have to be professionals to host each other."

For many members like Hartman, meeting new people and making personal connections are key parts of the experience. "Hospitality is a very important value in my family," she says. "We enjoy the opportunity to welcome a stranger into our home. Airbnb makes it less risky because they have several safeguards."

Airbnb members Mike and Dee Lazio of Davenport started using the site because they were tired of staying in hotels, wanting a more personal experience when they traveled. At Airbnb properties they have received astonishing hospitality, enjoying everything from elaborate home-cooked breakfasts to priceless advice on the best local destinations.

"We're not in it to make money," says Dee Lazio. "We're in it for the fun of meeting people and travel."

Mike Lazio adds, "It's just incredible how much you have in common with people."

While social networking websites have been criticized for contributing to a culture of isolation, the popularity of resources like Airbnb seems to be in part about building community. Hartman says, "I'm skeptical of technology. I think it becomes a too-easy substitute for genuine community. This is one of those times where technology helps us be a better community."

Of course, community is only one side to the story. For many, it's about value and economy. Airbnb properties often rent for less than a traditional hotel, and hosts can generate a side income. Listing a property is free, but Airbnb collects a small percentage of the booking fee.

Although properties in large markets get rented most frequently, even in the Quad-Cities the Lazios say they are surprised by the volume of inquiries they receive — at least two to three per month.

Share the road and the wheels

Another example of the sharing economy at work, Zipcar, just made its debut late summer in Iowa City and at the University of Iowa. It's a new way to drive that reduces reliance on personal vehicles and promotes car-sharing instead.

Here's how it works: Zipcars are parked in reserved spaces around the city. Zipcar members can reserve a car online, use a swipe key to unlock it, and drive for around $7 an hour or $66 per day. Gas, insurance, and up to 180 miles per day are included. According to Zipcar, each car shared takes at least 20 personal vehicles off the road, and members report a monthly savings of more than $500 compared to car ownership.

Liz Christiansen, director of the Office of Sustainability at the school, says, "I think that having a car-sharing service allows people to make the decision to not bring a car to campus. You would have the ability in Iowa City to live car-free."

Christiansen says there are three cars on campus and four right off campus, with a total of 10 cars throughout the city. Eager to see how the service worked firsthand, she recently signed up and picked up a car to go visit her mother over the lunch hour. "I picked up a Honda Civic in front of the public library. It was great, really easy to use," she says. "Now I have the option of taking public transit to work and still being able to see my mother over the day."

Students aren't the only ones who may benefit from Zipcar. Christiansen points out that it's a great option for a family who may only have one car, or for those who can rely on public transportation most of the time but still need a car every now and then. She says, "I would encourage people to be open to it. Take the opportunity to learn about it and see if it's a viable option for you."

As the phenomenon of collaborative consumption continues to grow, we will likely see more examples of businesses and services providing these kinds of opportunities. It may be too soon to say whether Airbnb and Zipcar will change the world, but it's certainly safe to say they're changing the world's excursions.

Becky Langdon is a regular Radish contributor.