I'm sure I've quoted it here before. The opening monologue to the movie "Crash".
It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.
Our society is careening towards alienation and isolation at light speed, and this brings with it a whole host of social issues. Of course, some alienation is inherent in any large, capitalist society (yes, I'm quoting Marx), and the conception of the idyllic 1950's suburb is a false image in the mind of all who espouse it. But recent trends in our society show that we are closing ourselves off more and more each day. The rise of the giant SUV or raised truck (with tinted windows, no less), the three-hour commute, the private parking garage, the attached garage, and (especially) the gated community indicate that we want to interact less and less with our fellow man. Americans see others around them not as people, but as potential threats to their livelihood. (This sort of thinking significantly informs the immigration debate. See last week's issue of the "Calvert Courier" for a brilliant example of what I'm talking about.)
In a society like the one we are heading towards, we can expect to see racism, classism, and sexism running rampant. Moral considerations will inform decisions less and less, and personal economic considerations (greed) will rule the day. Collective action will become even rarer than it is now. When we no longer see the people around us as people, when we lose our sense of shared humanity and struggle, we no longer need to care about how we harm others, so long as we get ahead. (I can cite research for a lot of this, if you guys ask.)
You're probably asking "What does this have to do with transit?". (Unless, of course, you're Browne from The Bus Bench.) Well, anyone who's ever ridden the bus for a decent amount of time will realize that "shared humanity" nicely describes the experience. In a well-traveled transit system, you see people of all walks of life and all situations, enjoying their little patch of plastic chair, getting to wherever they're going, just like you are. The exhausted mother with her two children sleeping on the Senior/Disabled bench up front. The janitor, with his broom, mop, and copy of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." The young man with sagging pants and his head buried in a calculus textbook. Any time spent on transit forces you to regain that shared sense of humanity. Riding the bus makes you realize that we are all the same, and we are all in this together.
Will better transit instantly destroy all of our social problems? Probably not. But it's a step in the right direction.