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Denys Lawrence Munby was a man with a passion for transport statistics. The first reader in transport economics at Oxford University, he spent his life collecting rail, bus and tram timetables. By the time of his death in 1976—murdered by bandits, it is thought, in the mountains of Turkey—he had amassed Britain’s most complete set of travel data. With it he was able to pinpoint, for the first time, the moments at which different types of transport hit their peak.

Munby’s successor at Oxford, Phil Goodwin, found himself intrigued by these turning points. Did planners in the 1920s, having seen the railways grow throughout their lives, spot that train use was soon to fall sharply? Or the same for buses in the mid-1950s? They did not. This thought led Goodwin to a radical idea: might the west have already reached “peak car,” the moment when car use begins to decline?

The notion is heretical to transport planners, who assume that economic growth and car use go together, which has been the case for more than a generation. Globally, that trend will continue. A 2008 article in the journal Economic Policy predicts that of the 2.3bn cars made worldwide over the next half century, 1.9bn will be sold in developing markets. China’s car fleet is set to outnumber America’s by 2030.

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