A photographic exhibit of 13 subway systems, displayed in the F Street mezzanine of the Metro Center station, leads you to think our Metro is best - until the whining screech of a stopping train drowns the thought.

You read with envy on the exhibit panels how Montreal, Mexico City and Paris subway riders are transported almost noiselessly "on plump pneumatic rubber tires along raised ribbons of smooth concrete."

"Too expensive to maintain," pooh-poohs Metro spokesman Cody Pfanstiehl. "Also, rubber tires generate uncomfortable heat," he says, promising that Metro cars will soon be "retro-fitted" with brake pads to save eardrums and sanity.

Refinements aside, rapid transit technology has not substantially advanced since London's underground trains, with steam locomotives which started running in 1863, and switched to electricity almost 100 years ago.

Escalators, too, are almost a century old and, like rubber tires, work everywhere except in Washington. The only real innovation is electronic fare collection, which has hardly improved things for customers.

What has substantially changed, this exhibition shows, is subway station design.

In a world still infatuated with automobiles, subways have to try harder. Despite the infatuation, or rather because of it, underground rapid rail systems saw a phenomenal comeback in the past 20 years.

Before that, only 24 cities in the world had subways and four-fifths of their mileage was built before World War I.

Today, the number of cities with subways has more than doubled and another 13 cities are buildingnew systems that should start operating within a decade.

One reason for this, explains planner Boris Pushkarev in the exhibition catalogue is the rapid urbanization of Asia, Latin America and the Soviet Union in cities like Yokohama, Seoul, Sao Paulo or Tbilisi, which have become urban agglomerations, large numbers of people must be hauled relatively long distances in a short time. There is no other way to do this than under ground. The subway trains in these cities were bursting with humanity from the day they started running.

But only five of the 26 post World War I systems are in the developing world. The others were built in such mature cities as Munich, San Francisco and Washington because automobiles were clogging the streets to the point where buses and streetcars could hardly move.

Additional freeways in the city have become unacceptable to citizens and city fathers.

But rapid transit systems are still on trial at least in this country. In addition to complex cost-benefit arithmetic, reliability, and true convenience, citizens want subsways to be more than efficient machinery that flushes suburbanities in and out of tow. They expect a subway to enhance the city.

Engineers often find this hard to understand. But the battle was won in Washington, when the Metro engineers accepted a gifted architect-Harry Weese of Chicago-as co-equal in the design of our system. As it turned out, Washington's Metro is better standing than moving. It works far better esthetically than mechanically.

The esthetic, the architecture, is based on a daring idea: All of Washington's underground stations are in the form of coffered Roman vaults. Variety is offered only by the configuration of the vault.

I find this harmony pleasing. It is also one of the very few instances in modern architecture where form actually does follow structural function.

But the uniformity of the stations requires an intelligent and intelligible graphic system. Some of the worst and most predictable (and loudly predicted) disasters of Metro's graphic information signs have been corrected. Metro has now put stations signs on the wall, where you can see them from the train.

But in general, the graphics are stupid and confusing.

The exhibit devotes a good deal of space to graphics. It proves once again (at least to me) that the design, letter style, color scheme and placement of the signs created by Edward Johnson for the London Underground at the turn of this century, is still by far the best. Lance Wyman's deligtful pictograms for each of Mexico City's stations are only a partial improvement. The lettering is regrettably mannerist.

The ambition of most subway systems seems to be to make each station look as different as possible. That works best, I think, in Montreal and Stockholm.

Montreal features successful essays in architecture. The stations, all designed by different architects, are symphonies of light and color, often quite original without being stunts. Stockholm, offers a fascinating stream of decorative images, a string of art galleries. It is like a movable feast with each course in a different restaurant.

The exhibition, consisting of seven impressively designed and well lit panels, was created by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design. It made a hit in New York last year. After May 27, it will move on to Boston and other cities. CAPTION: Picture, Passageway on Vienna's Red Line