"New York — the city that never sleeps." Dear Frank Sinatra, I know exactly what you mean. Even back in 1977, your song got it absolutely right. However, you forgot to consider an important question: What happens to the inhabitants of a city that never sleeps? Are they condemned to be dead-tired zombies who stagger through the urban canyons, always on the lookout for peace and quiet and a few minutes of sleep? I think they are — or at least I am.
Scenario 2050: A Wormhole in the Big Apple
Andy is a physicist who lives in New York City. Although he has been working in the Big Apple for five years now, he still doesn't feel at home there — he thinks it's too loud, too hectic, and too dirty. How will living conditions in the city develop in the future? He finds out very quickly — at first hand.
My name is Andy, and I've been living in the Big Apple for the past five years. Before that I lived in Canada, out in the backwoods, surrounded by forests, black bears, and a couple of oilfields. There were few houses, even fewer people, and lots of peace and quiet. Manhattan in the year 2014 is very different. Every day, as I make my way to the office an avalanche of noise crashes down on me. Trucks, taxis, and fire engines roar, swoosh, honk, hoot, brake, and stutter. Countless loudspeakers spill their music over me, and the subway rattles and rumbles like a herd of stampeding buffalo. I feel that every time I draw a breath I'm breathing in a bucket of dust, seasoned with a pungent aroma of hot dogs and sauerkraut. Do you think I'm suffering from psychoses? I admit I might be a bit sensitive and not made for life in the big city. However, the Big Apple does have its positive aspects, for example my job as a physics instructor at Columbia University. That's the reason I gave up my house on the shores of a lake for a small apartment in Manhattan.
New York Never Sleeps, But I Seem to Be Outsmarting the Big Apple
It's 8 p.m., and I'm climbing tiredly up the narrow stairs to my apartment. The window is closed, as it always is, because I deliberately want to shut out the street. By way of compensation, I leave the air conditioning on — most of the time at least, because it makes a lot of noise. I fall into my armchair, exhausted. By the way, have you ever heard a bear growl? If you haven't, just listen to my old fridge in the neighboring room. My eyelids are getting heavier, and I feel that I'm slowly drifting off. New York never sleeps, but I seem to be outsmarting the Big Apple by getting a bit of rest.
I'm dreaming of an infernal orchestra whose brass instruments wail like fire engine sirens, the violins sound like screeching brakes, and the timpani produce not a drum roll but the thunderous roar of a helicopter's rotors. The conductor's face seems familiar to me. It's the fat cop who always buys a hot dog in the morning at a stand on Times Square. The drone of the percussion instruments grows in a punishing crescendo, then suddenly ebbs and slowly fades to a gentle roar.
Did I Accidentally Enter a Wormhole?
I wake with a start and shake my head. How long was I dozing? That's odd — I can still hear that roaring sound. My first glance falls on a huge screen, on which a good-looking woman with dyed white hair informs me, "We are landing at JFK Airport in five minutes. It's 5:30 p.m. on Monday, August 15, 2050." Of course I'm still dreaming. However, the ergonomically designed seat feels terrifyingly real, not at all like my sagging old armchair at home. The panoramic window on my left reveals Manhattan lying below me. Does the space-time continuum change in a city that never sleeps? Did I accidentally enter a wormhole in my apartment? And what am I doing in an airplane?
Whether this is a dream or a bizarre reality, I decide to go along with it. I eagerly look out of the window. Suspended under the airplane's wings are not the jet engines I'm familiar with but oddly flat-looking turbines that are producing only that strange rushing sound. It's obviously a hybrid electric drive system that gets its power from a small gas turbine. The energy is temporarily stored in a rechargeable battery. It's a concept that is regarded today as representing the future of the aeronautics industry. But what does "today" mean? And what awaits me after we land at JFK?
I'm standing on a conveyor belt that is transporting me through the terminal. Passport checks, at least physical ones, seem to be a thing of the past in the year 2050. In my pants pocket I found a transparent "phablet" that greeted me with an "ID accepted" at the end of the gangway. Now the “phablet” is guiding me to a parking space, where a car is supposed to be waiting for me, according to my digital butler. I'm looking forward to seeing where it will take me.
An empty parking space is an empty sparking space, even in the year 2050. I'm rather disappointed. Apparently one shouldn't expect too much from the future. But just at that moment a car glides toward me, making a soft purring sound. It looks a bit like a typical New York yellow cab, but its shape is unconventional and it's pleasantly quiet. Of course — it's got an electric drive system. It stops a few meters away from me, rotates its wheels 90 degrees, and rolls sideways to the curb. No conventional taxi can do that unless it has a wheel hub engine — and this one doesn't even have a driver. The door automatically swings open, and the empty driver's seat is extended invitingly toward me. "Hi, Andy! You look younger every day," says the car. "Hop in."
We glide through a city that I recognize only slightly. "We" refers to my talking car and me. The car steers itself, entertains me, and tells me the latest news. By the way, did you know that in the future we will have a woman president — with a First Lady? "Andy, I notice that you're hungry. There's a hot dog stand at the next corner. Should I pull over?" That's a very thoughtful gesture, for a car. I get out — or rather, I'm propelled out of the car. The seat is then retracted and the door closes.
It's unbelievable: I can understand people's voices when they are talking. And was that really the sound of a bird singing? There's no traffic noise, only a discreet humming produced by the electric cars on the street behind me. Gliding between them is a truck with "H2 Truck" painted on its side — a phrase that must mean "hydrogen-powered truck." Broad bike lanes line the avenue, and streams consisting of various types of pedelecs and electric mopeds are moving along them. Induction loops have been installed under the asphalt in the parking bays — this is evidently where the cars can recharge their batteries. I take a deep breath. The air seems oddly substantial, as though one could eat it. It contains a familiar smell of sauerkraut, but I also taste nuances of the scent of flowers. In the year 2050, the Big Apple is obviously not giving off any auto emissions. This has clearly been good for the facades of the buildings, which look unusually clean. Many of the facades are even covered with flowers, ferns, and plants of every kind. Some buildings even seem to have real gardens.
"Your hot dog, sir." The hotdog seller looks familiar. His weatherworn face has developed deep wrinkles. The man I used to know was young — the same age as me. "Just a few days ago we started to offer locally produced sauerkraut too. I've rented a small field in the vertical farm on the Freedom Tower, and during my retirement I'm attempting to be a vegetable farmer. Try some, it's on the house," he urges me.
My car chauffeurs me safely through the new "old" Manhattan, while I leisurely eat my organic hot dog. During the drive I find out that my talkative electric car is made of carbon fiber and gets its energy from rechargeable lithium-air batteries — a technology that was tried out in lab dimensions in 2014. By now it seems to have reached market maturity; my car can drive about 700 kilometers without recharging. Our trip takes us through the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River to Hoboken, New Jersey. This is where Frank Sinatra grew up. If he only knew...
I have no idea where our journey will take us next. According to my rolling buddy, we're going to the ferry station on the former docks. And it's true — when I consult my "phablet" it shows me a digital ticket issued to my name. However, it doesn't indicate the destination of my ocean voyage. "It was nice talking to you, Andy. This is where we go our separate ways. I'm driving back to the airport. Until we meet again, have a good trip." My car leaves me in the same easy way it received me, purring as it drives away.
I taste salty air and smell seaweed. The skyline of Manhattan towers in the background. It glows in the setting sun and looks like a gentle giant that is literally beaming at me. It's peaceful, but it's never tired. The ferry is waiting at the dock in front of me, and cars glide softly into its cave-like entrance. A cable as thick as my arm connects the electric ship to the grid. It's obviously pumping in the energy it needs for the next trip. There is no diesel smoke or engine roar to disturb the picture. I go on board, and my "phablet" guides me to a reserved seat. A short time later, the ship silently casts off and picks up speed. Small hard waves beat against the hull, but nothing else can be heard. The silence makes me tired. I'm afraid to fall asleep, because I don't know where I'm going to wake up. The Statue of Liberty glides past me. It seems to be giving me a mocking grin, as though it's saying, "How can you dare to dream here, in a city that never sleeps?" Slowly, I doze off.