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Coronavirus: How Cambridge city centre will adapt as cars make way for street diners

Cars could make way for dining tables in the city’s streets as some roads are closed to traffic in an attempt to get Cambridge’s bars and restaurants back in business following the lockdown.

An increase in pavement dining is one of the ideas being discussed between Cambridge business representatives, the city council and the county’s highway’s department according to Ian Sandison, chief executive of Cambridge Business Improvement District (BID).

Cambridge BID chief executive Ian Sandison. Picture: Richard Marsham
Cambridge BID chief executive Ian Sandison. Picture: Richard Marsham

And he is also investigating a smart queuing app that would allow customers to be notified when it is safe to go into a shop and remain socially distanced from other shoppers, without having to wait outside the premises.

Ian said: “Clearly we have a number of challenges because our narrow streets and pavements, which are a very beautiful part of our medieval city, don’t really lend themselves to fall in line with Public Health England advice to keep a two-metre distance from other people. So there are some very simple, practical challenges that we and the city council and others are talking about at the moment.

“I have been involved in a working party with the city council, county council and the highways department about this, although we haven’t made any decisions. It’s clear Cambridge BID does not have any power in this, but we do have a voice.

“We have looked at what other cities in the UK have done and I think there will definitely be a wish to enable more use of the road space.”

Many city restaurants and bars have quite limited space and no garden, meaning the number of customers they could serve amid social distancing rules would be very small.

Ian said: “We might want to enable people to have more tables and chairs outside if we can and give pedestrians and cyclists more of the road space. It would also be helpful in the historic city centre if we could have a voluntary no-cycling area where people get off and push and therefore pedestrians would feel safer.”

He made some suggestions for streets which may be suitable for traffic restrictions to allow pavement or road dining.

“Green Street, for example, isn’t used by many vehicles. There are quite a few food and beverage outlets like Bills or the gin bar or Harriet’s Tea Rooms. That might lend itself to being a street where you could limit access at certain times of the day and then you could have outside seating.”

He also suggested the King’s Parade barrier could be closed again between 10am to 7pm so that cafés and bars serve customers outside where it is easier to space people out safely.

Cambridge BID chief executive Ian Sandison. Picture: Richard Marsham
Cambridge BID chief executive Ian Sandison. Picture: Richard Marsham

“It would be great for them to have tables and chairs on the pavement or the road,” he explained. “There’s still plenty of space there for pedestrians and cyclists.”

He hoped the city would have a plan for street dining worked out by early June, adding: “We will have a plan looking at which streets in the historic core we would like to use the road space for more tables and chairs for outside dining. We must also be able to have passers-by walking past, enable people to park their bikes and allow space for businesses to have well managed queues.”

The working group is also looking at the smart queuing app for shoppers to download to their mobile phones, enabling them to queue virtually before going into a store.

“Having a smart queuing system would enable us in Cambridge to have less physical queues on the street. And it would stop queues encroaching on each other. Physically you might have space for three people outside your shop but you could have 100 people in the virtual queue while they are somewhere else having lunch, sitting in their car, at home if they live in the city or enjoying the sun in the park.

“The app is still being developed but it’s well established company in terms of booking restaurants and takeaways. We need to get buy-in from businesses but it will be free to the consumer. There would normally be a fee to businesses but we are hoping as a city to attract funding from the government to make it free for the first year.”

Other solutions being discussed include asking restaurants and pubs, particularly those on Regent Street, to allow people to queue at the back door, enabling a different route in and out.

He warned: “Some businesses sadly won’t open again because they won’t get through the crisis. Cath Kidston is already in administration, so is Carluccios.

“I think across all sectors the high street was already challenging before this. If you get a loan you need confidence you will have a business in a few months’ time to pay off the loan.”

The key job is to make customers and staff feel safe, he said.

“If people come back into the city the first couple of times and don’t feel safe and don’t feel it is well organised, they may go somewhere else. We have to get that right.”

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