The Zoo's "Free" Problem

Posted by John Branston on Mon, Apr 5, 2010 at 10:23 AM

The Memphis Zoo got a hard lesson last week in the cost of "free day."

So many people showed up that the zoo and Overton Park had to be closed for a while. There were traffic jams, fights, and gunshots.

The zoo administration has come up with some possible remedies including no free days during March (and spring break for city schools) and a requirement that kids up to 16 years old have an adult chaperon. But this will put a burden on the zoo staff ("let me see your IDs, all five of you, and which one is the chaperon, and who came with who?") and it ignores the problem of zoo overcrowding and neighborhood encroachment the other 11 months of the year.

There's another idea that might work. Make free day dollar day.

We value things differently when we have to pay for them, even a small amount. If I go to a deli and there are free cookies or bags of chips at the checkout point, I take one. If the cookie and chips cost a dollar, maybe I don't. In any case, I think about it.

Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, wrote about this in his book "Free: The Future of a Radical Price."

"It's as if our brains were wired to raise a flag every time we're confronted with a price. This is the 'is it worth it?' flag. If you charge a price, any price, we are forced to ask ourselves if we really want to open our wallets. But if the price is zero, that flag never goes up and the decision just got easier."

Normal admission to the zoo, if you are older than 11, is $15. So the students who came to the zoo last Tuesday afternoon (possibly drawn by the "flash mob" phenomenon, driven by cell phones and texting) were making a rational economic decision. Would they have come if the price was $1 or $2? Or would they have come to Overton Park and just hung out in the playing fields or around the parking lots and side streets instead, which raises other issues? It would be interesting to find out.

My guess is that what economists call the "mental transaction costs" would keep a lot of people away. I bet most of those kids showed up to see the crowd, not the animals.

Someone will probably complain that "poor" Memphians can't afford to pay an admission charge. Well, they pay for cell phones, which cost more each month than an annual zoo membership.

The zoo and other public facilities have a touchy problem on their hands when it comes to free.

Some of my neighbors in the Evergreen Historic District in Midtown, which borders the zoo, think the zoo should build a parking garage to handle the overflow of cars that now park on the Overton Park fields south of the zoo or outside the zoo on nearby streets.

But I think they've overlooking the problem of free. A parking garage would charge $5 or more. If you park on Kenilworth, Galloway, Forrest, or over at Snowden School, it's free. Speaking for myself, I would walk many a block before putting up with the hassle — and charges — of a parking garage.

Shuttles to the zoo are another possibility. They work pretty well at other zoos, at theme parks, and at the pro tennis tournament at The Racquet Club in February. But there aren't any good collector points near Overton Park, and you still have the alternative choice of free parking on neighborhood streets.

Admission to Mud Island River Park has been free for the last few years, in a bid to boost attendance. There is a small charge for parking and for museum admission. The zoo folks should talk to the people at the Riverfront Development Corporation and see how that is working out and what impact charge or no-charge has on attendance.

Shopping malls are free, and managers have come up with ways to address crowd control problems before and after they happen. So talk to them, too.

Concerts at the Levitt Shell at Overton Park are free, and the crowds are generally modest in size and demeanor. Maybe some evening there will be a flash mob of aging baby boomers and hippies. Wait, we all did that 40 years ago before we knew the term.

Free doesn't work for some things. I hate to say it, but it's probably true that you couldn't give away tickets to University of Memphis football games or Memphis Redbirds games the last couple of years.

You can't give away magazines these days, so publishers figure they might as well charge premium prices on newsstands and bargain prices for annual subscriptions.

You can give away newspapers, however, like the Memphis Flyer, because our loyal advertisers pay good money to reach our audience. By putting this column on our website before (or instead of) putting it in the paper, I may be undercutting our print-paper advertisers. If some blogger posts a better column or comment on our site, for free of course, he or she may be undercutting me.

Free is complicated. I sympathize with the zoo.

Comments (23)

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A $1 admission sounds like a good fix, and it would still a valid public service and effective membership tool. I, too, was wondering how the zoo could staff the chaperon-vetting and age-confirmation duties without putting 20 hard-nosed gatekeepers on the job. The line to get in would extend all the way to McLean. Anyone who can't scrape together $1 has worse problems to deal with than lack of access to ostriches.

Posted by bridgman on 04/05/2010 at 12:10 PM

How do you confirm ages for all these kids? Do they carry ID? I completely agree on $1 day, but the zoo will have to change their contract with the city to eliminate free day, won't they? I bet that's a battle the zoo doesn't want to deal with. I DEFINITELY agree on building the parking garage, especially if it will stop the zoo from encroaching on Overton Park's greensward. I know that people on Autumn will hate to hear this, but replace that parking lot on Galloway with a well-designed, properly screened structure! The litter is another issue the zoo MUST deal with after high attendance days. The litter along N. Parkway, McLean, in Evergreen and through the park was terrible on the Wednesday after free day. They need to do a sweep of the neighborhood after a busy day.

Posted by Evergreener on 04/05/2010 at 1:02 PM

Make Tuesdays "TN Two-sday" and charge $2. Still a great deal, still a great public service.

I am glad the zoo has made a clear statement on the 10,000 capacity limit; all public venues should have one, and monitor it. It's good business to tell people what to expect, and good for safety.

And I totally agree on the parking garage problem - charging more for parking isn't going to help the parking situation; there just aren't enough spots on peak days - and who really wants a 2 or 3 story concrete monstrosity in Overton Park?

Posted by better_by_design on 04/05/2010 at 1:06 PM

I don't care what they do. They just need to keep those damn kids off my lawn!

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Posted by 38103 on 04/05/2010 at 1:35 PM

I take my share of responsibility for the unfortunate zoo incident. I just get really wound up at the "Animals Of The Night" exhibit.

Posted by Phlo on 04/05/2010 at 1:58 PM

But is it a capital P problem that requires a capital F fix? Or was it a hundred year storm? Lots of factors seemed to combine here: spring break, beautiful weather, weak economy, free zoo day. Take any single element away and the event seems so much less likely. I think priority one is not to over-respond.

Posted by Chris Davis on 04/05/2010 at 2:13 PM

Zoos are an anachronism...let the animals breathe the fresh air of freedom and roam the Old Forest (but let's stick the big carnivorous cats in a city council meeting for a half hour or so first and charge admission to THAT).

Posted by Packrat on 04/05/2010 at 2:27 PM

Packrat, I think you may have stumbled on a good use for the Pyramid...

Posted by autoegocrat on 04/05/2010 at 2:49 PM

But wouldn't subjecting the big cats to our local politicians constitute animal cruelty?

Posted by mad_merc on 04/05/2010 at 3:44 PM

… I think animals are able to differentiate between good and rancid meat.

Posted by urbanut on 04/05/2010 at 3:49 PM

I'm with you in theory, Packrat, but I'm afraid the animals would pick up bad habits from the Fruit Loop and as mad_merc points out, the last thing we need is (naked) PETA people protesting prostituting panthers in the park.

Posted by sbanbury on 04/05/2010 at 4:23 PM

Dang, it costs 15 bucks to get into the zoo? I'm sorry, but that's too much.

What they ought to do is what Playhouse on the Square does, namely have a "pay what you can" day (with the understanding that the minimum will be, let's say, 2 bucks), and a "suggested" donation of 5 bucks. This should cut down on riff-raff, but still let folks who can't afford 15 bucks see the place.

Posted by AliasElias on 04/05/2010 at 4:38 PM

The bigger problem is this "flash mob" phenomenon. My solution: Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc. are declared illegal, tomorrow. Then maybe we can re-learn the social skills that the social media have killed.

Posted by AliasElias on 04/05/2010 at 4:44 PM

Man, for what you get out of our zoo that's a bargain price AE. We get annual memberships which are $99 for the whole family and cover admission and parking for the year. The notion that zoos are an anachronism was very popular not so long ago, but that's like saying parks are an anachronism generally. It's all about how you define and use a public space. As urbanites we don't have much of a back yard, so we treat the zoo with its cool playground like an extended back yard... with sea lions!

Posted by Chris Davis on 04/05/2010 at 4:57 PM

The best part of the zoo is when the monkeys all decide for whatever reason it's time to freak out and start whooping and hollering like somebody was spanking them. If it's a quiet day you can hear them all the way from Poplar Avenue.

Posted by autoegocrat on 04/05/2010 at 5:01 PM

autoegocrat, what you're actually hearing is the Shelby County Commission meetings.

Posted by Midtown Mark on 04/05/2010 at 5:16 PM

Don't demean the monkeys like that

Posted by mad_merc on 04/05/2010 at 5:21 PM

One problem - isn't the zoo required by law (or at least contract) to provide a minimum number of free days per year?

Posted by critter42 on 04/05/2010 at 8:12 PM

I think they should move the zoo to the fairgrounds.

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Posted by Jeff on 04/06/2010 at 7:32 AM

As far as shuttle collection points, both the fairgrounds and Overton Square's parking lot are underutilized. And it would get some cars off the park's lawn.

Posted by dmabury on 04/06/2010 at 12:02 PM

re shuttles -- right in theory, but does it pass the "would I do that" test? People going to the zoo are probably going to drive to the zoo, then park. The trolley fallacy.

Posted by John Branston on 04/06/2010 at 12:27 PM

Hey Jeff what if they just move the free admission part over to the to the fairgrounds and leave the zoo and regular admission prices where they are?

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Posted by mad_merc on 04/06/2010 at 12:27 PM

My opion is going to be the worst of them all I think the Zoo is a wonderful place for Families and Children. I also think if you do not have a child under the age of 13 you should not be allowed to go unless the child is handicap. This would slow down the ignorance and the young teens from becoming violent and rude. Also, dress code PULL your pants up, and lastly metal detectors. Now that's a plan. One other thing if they made people purchase season passes most likely the thug's would not pay for it and we would be problem free.

Posted by me on 06/25/2012 at 8:51 AM
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