The Zoo's "Free" Problem



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.

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