Dumb-looking, annoying for pedestrians, and unable to hover (they rolled on wheels). That was Wired magazine’s recent take on the hoverboard – or what it called perhaps the most mocked transport solution of all time.

“It’s a shame,” the magazine concluded, “because no matter the doofiness, that kind of compact, speedy, low effort transport can be great for getting you that ‘last mile’ from your office to the metro, or from the bus stop to your house.”

Wired’s list of the seven best last-mile solutions (or at least the seven that don’t look “unaccountably stupid”) included an electric skateboard, a latest-generation Segway, several bicycles (including at least one that folds up), and a pair of running shoes.

Also in the rundown was an “adorably funky” mini-car. As well as looking fun, Wired pointed out, tiny cars “take up less road space, and are easier to park”.

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More on minuscule vehicles later. But first, a reminder of why last-mile transit matters (besides getting us home when we’re knackered). According to the UN, the transportation sector is responsible for about 23 per cent of global carbon emissions. And the majority of those journeys are short.

In 2009, for example, a Dutch cycling organisation estimated that most trips in European cities are less than six kilometres. Similarly, a Norwegian study in 2014 found that the majority of the car trips in Norway are short, with 39 per cent less than three kilometres. And a 2012 report from Transport for London reported that a little over a third (35 per cent) of all car trips in London are shorter than two kilometres, with just under a third (32 per cent) between two and five kilometres.

Right, back to the electric mini-cars. Or rather electric mini-cabs – and, in particular, a smart solution to urban mobility developed and deployed by a South African company called Mellowcabs.

It provides low-cost, environmentally-friendly and last-mile transport services in cities. Mellowcabs claims 80 per cent of all urban vehicle trips in South Africa are shorter than four kilometres – making the climate ripe for its cheap, on-demand taxi services. The company has positioned its electric vehicles as a viable alternative to private vehicles and ordinary taxis in urban areas.

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Mellowcabs says its aim is “not to compete with other transport systems such as trains, buses, but rather feed into and complement existing networks”. Indeed, it offers services along set routes – from a train station, say, to a university campus – as well as through on-demand booking via its app, website or call-centre. Passengers pay a flat fee, within a four-kilometre radius. A single Mellowcab can provide over 120 kilometres of transport per day.

Designed for commuters traveling within a four-kilometre radius, its cabs save fuel and reduce urban pollution. In fact, according to the company, replacing just one fossil-fuel-powered cab with a Mellowcab could save up to 4.3 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.

There’s a socioeconomic benefit, too. As mobility in urban areas facilitates growth and employment, by providing accessible and efficient transportation, Mellowcabs helps promote healthy urban economic conditions. Obviously too, its low-cost last-mile services allows commuters to benefit from shorter and cheaper journeys to and from work.

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After the success of its pilot phase, the five-year-old company is now in development phase, designing and building a new generation of cabs. It’s also eyeing markets beyond South Africa, including Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria. Nor is it alone: a Swedish start-up called Bzzt has just launched a range of tiny electric taxis in Gothenburg and Stockholm.

If companies such as these succeed, perhaps they'll prove once and for all that, when it comes to the last mile, it’s high time we ditched the hoverboard.

This innovation is part of the Global Opportunity Explorer – a platform which offers direct access to leading sustainable innovations around the world. The Explorer is a joint project of Sustainia, DNV GL and the UN Global Compact. Rooted in over five years of research involving 17,000 business leaders and 17 expert panels, it guides you through hundreds of solutions and market opportunities which address the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). Discover more on goexplorer.org, and follow the latest news @sustainia and #GOexplorer.

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