COLUMBIA — Chad Canfield’s alarm blares. He peers at it: 4:30 a.m.
His feet won’t hit the floor until 5, but within the hour, he’ll strap on a helmet and buzz down Broadway, where he’ll combat zero traffic and get a rare peek at Columbia while most of the city is still asleep.
“It’s just amazing. The sun hasn’t even really come up yet,” Canfield said. “It’s nice and crisp and cool and so quiet.”
His car sits in the driveway; he prefers it that way. He’s more of a bike-12-miles-a-day kind of guy.
“It’s empowering,” he said of cycling. “It’s good for the environment, makes me feel good and I’m addicted to riding.”
Canfield and his family decided last year to sacrifice their cars for an entire month — part of “The Low-Car Diet Challenge” sponsored by the Pedestrian and Pedaling Network, or PedNet, and Ragtag Cinemacafe.
This year’s challenge kicks off Saturday.
“I was commuting to work anyway and spending the majority of my time commuting by bike,” Canfield said. “I’m always doing the low-car diet.”
The rules of the challenge are clear: Participants must steer clear of automobile travel, as driver or passenger. The only ways to travel that get the green light are public transit, wheelchairs, bicycles and feet.
“Our category last year was ‘all or nothing,’” said Chris Walthall, community programs coordinator for PedNet. Bikes and walking were the only options with no exceptions, she said.
This year the judges made the program more flexible. New categories include “weekly shopper,” which allows four round-trip car journeys during the month; “business traveler,” which permits one out-of-town trip by car and airplane during the month; and “elite,” the most restrictive category, which prohibits all motorized forms of transportation.
Participants are asked to journal their experiences.
Gina Overshiner participated in last year’s challenge with her two children and said they “loved it,” according to Gina’s husband Tim.
“It taught our kids that they don’t have to be dependent on others to get around,” said Tim Overshiner, who could not participate because his remodeling business requires transporting heavy materials.
Unfortunately, a car was sometimes crucial when it came to the kids’ activities, he said.
Their son, Max, 9, had to miss a couple of evening baseball games because the ball field is located on a dangerous road. “But,” Overshiner said, “Max would rather skip baseball than stop the challenge.”
Canfield’s family has also caught the biking bug.
“My son rides his bike to school and home, and we ride together,” Canfield said. “My daughter gets in the bike trailer just as comfortably as in the car.
“She snaps on a bike helmet and she’s ready to go — and she’s only 2.”
Canfield landed in the emergency room during last year’s challenge when his 12-mile-a-day bike commutes, paired with intense training in the gym, caused dehydration. But one day later, he was pedaling through Columbia with his 6-year-old and toddler in tow.
“It’s making a positive impact on the environment and a health choice for myself,” he said. “I would be cranky and crabby if I didn’t.”
The Low-Car Diet originated in Portland, Ore., last year, and soon after, Walthall and challenge organizer Paul Sturtz joined the bandwagon by launching the Columbia-based challenge.
“We wanted to make people aware that it is possible to do this, either with a little or a lot of planning, depending on your occupation,” Walthall said. “You might have to plan a bit further ahead, get up earlier, skip going out of town.”
Last year, 19 people signed up and 12 finished. This year, Sturtz expects at least that many participants.
Whether people adopt the biking lifestyle for a month or are in it for the long haul, he said it can be a learning experience.
“We felt it was imperative to encourage people any way we could,” Sturtz said.
The Low-Car Diet Challenge is part of Columbia’s Active Living by Design project and runs throughout September.