The reason beauty requires some help from the government, Mr. President, is that the govenment spreads so much ugliness.

Government transportation policy these past three decades -- which pampered automobiles to the detriment of public transportation -- has made a noisy, polluted, unslightly mess of much of our urban environment.

Using public transportation is also mostly unpleasant. That hurts the fare box, the balance of payments, urban livability and the quality of life.

The U.S. Department of Transportation -- or more correctly, perhaps, a few enlightened people within DOT -- have recognized the problem and are doing something about it.

A publication, "Aesthetics in Transportation," issued late last year by the office of DOT's secretary under the direction of Robert P. Thurber, reasons persuasively that ugliness is counterproductive, even if it is "functional," from the narrow engineering and cost-benefit point of view.

"The cost of aesthetic quality is not alway's higher than the cost of poor design," the publication says. "In any event, attractive projects bring much greater long-term benefits to the public by increasing the development potential of communities. If additional funds are required for aesthetic design and art, they can usually be justified in terms of identifiable, long-range economic formulas.

"Standardized formulas and rigid guidelines wuld not improve the situation and could easily make it worse," DOT decided. Instead, its publication holds up outstanding examples of good and creative design in all aspects of transportation. The idea is to inspire planners, engineers, administrators and designers and to tell artists and those who support them about opportunities for helpful creativity they may not have thought of.

In cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts, DOT now also awards design excellence to encourage it. Award categories include railroad stations; freight terminals; bridges; overpasses and interchanges; urban highways; rural transportation corridors, vehicle and equipment design; "common but neglected elements," such as paving or leftover land, use of public sculpture and murals; preservation or enhancement of historic buildings or places; community involvement; stimulation of public interest in good design; and cooperative approaches to environmental inprovements. Next May DOT and the Endowment will sponsor a national conference "design for moving people" in New York City.

DOT's esthetics book, prepared by Moore-Heder Architects of Cambridge, Mass., with the help of sundry consultants, presents an amazing variety of what can be done.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, for instance, a bus pulled up to City Hall and, according to news accounts, "a man, attired in white tie and tails, stepped out, strode over to the Steinway piano on the sidewalk, and began to play for lunch-time crowds . . . Tem minutes later, another bus dispatched Judith Claire, a soprano with the Cincinnati opera. Wearing a full-length evening gown and tiara and carring two shopping bags, she began to sing 'Musetta's Waltz' from La Bohme."

Other musicians entertained bus pasengers during off-peak hours or at other bus stops. It was all part of a program to make friends for the arts as well as the transit company. It worked. People liked it. Ridership increased.

For another example, a new railroad car -- the first built in America in 20 years -- offers deluxe bedrooms, family rooms, private baths, and a full-size kitchens for first-class meal service. The car is intended for excursions to resort areas.

San Francisco is about to provide commuter ferry service across the Bay between Marian County and downtown business district. Three gas-turbine boats carry 750 passengers each. That means that 3,200 commuters a day will stop clogging bridge traffic and polluting the air.

The design of the docks is airy and festive. The service is punctual, so passengers waste little time waiting. "The ferry system laces, technology with whimsey and delight, providing memorable trips without any loss of efficiency," says DOT's publication.

Several cities are now encouraging bicycling to work and recreation by providing theft-proof bike parking and allowing bikes on buses and trains. Many bike racks at shopping malls, parks, garages and mass transit stops are financed by service clubs or businesses. Some are paid for by users fees. a

Denver's urban bikeway plan includes a bicyle-bus transfer system by providing supervised bike parking at gas stations, libraries and other public insitutions. Denver is also considering a "pedal hopper," whereby people can take their bikes on buses. A conventional bus could carry 16 bicyclists.

Washington's Metro is thinking about permitting bikes on its trains. The problem is safety.

Unfortunately disruptive transportation structures are seldom removed for esthetic reasons, but only when they become technically obsolete. An exception is Harbor Drive in Portland Ore., which was torn down simply to let people know that there is a beautiful river. In New York City, however, it took the collapse of a section of the West Side Highway before something a little more civilized was considered. (Heaven prevent that something should go wrong with the long obsolete Whitehurst Freeway, to say nothing of National Airport!)

Washington solved the problem of potentially disastrous freeway disruption of the Mall by tunneling I-95 and buliding a reflection pool at the foot of the Capitol where trees no longer grow. It looks as though nothing happened.

But Seattle did us one better. It put a green lid on the whole freeway mess.

The lid is called "Freeway Park" and was built on the roof of two parking garages as well as a five-acre platform across an eight-lane spaghetti of concrete. It was designed by landscape architects Lawrence Halprin & Associates, with Angela Danadjieva designer in charge.

The park came about because angry citizens demanded some relief and voted for a bond issue. It is perhaps the most succesful example to date of ingenious design mitigating the impact of a highway on the city. The park not only reconnects the divided urban tissue, but also provides a new place for the community to enjoy.

The place is full of delights and suprises -- fountains, waterfalls, quiet sitiing areas and dramatic terraces, as well as a "canyon" descending to the freeway median and a window on the traffice amidst the roar of falling water. Profusely planted with shrubs and seasonal flowers, the once-hated freeway is now Seattle's most popular brown-bag-luncheon place. Frequent outdoor concerts and celebrations are held there.

Surprisingly, the park also delights drivers.