Metro's bus and subway systems are overwhelmingly viewed as important conveniences for Washington's residents and beneficial to the area's economy, according to a new public survey prepared for the Metro board.

The survey, which leaned heavily on transit users, provides useful grist for decision-making on such matters as how service should be cut or expanded and why people take the train or bus to work instead of their car.

Despite Metro's many and publicized problems, however, the most striking finding in the survey is the strong perception of the bus and subway systems as community assets. A total of 836 people, including more than 300 who rarely or never ride public transit, participated. Only 3 percent agreed with a statement, that "the Metro system is a waste of money."

At least four out of five surveyed agreed that public transportation is important to the area, bringing with it economic benefits, cleaner air and improved mobility.

People are willing to pay for improvements, the survey found -- at least to a point. Almost two-thirds said they would be willing to pay an unspecified fare increase to get more night-time bus service; more than half would pay more for additional bus routes, and almost half would pay more for extended Sunday subway hours and beefed-up express bus service.

The survey is one of several conducted by various organizations over the years, each of which has added credibility to Metro's contention that its service is popular. Local politicians have found the same thing in their private polls and they compete in elections to see who can be more pro-subway.

The real proof, however, is in ridership, which has shown dramatic gains in the last three years as Metro has added links to its planned 101-mile rail system. Thirty-seven miles are in operation. Bus ridership has jumped, too, as hundreds of bus routes have been rejiggered to feed the subway system.

The survey also showed again what transportation planners have known for years: the automobile still is the favorite transportation method for many people. Despite that, people will ride public transit if it is available and timely for the trips they want to make and if it saves them money.

The survey also found, as the subway's early advocates insisted, that inveterate automobile drivers are more inclined to try a train than a bus.

Part of the survey's value will be in telling Metro what people like. Riders of all kinds of transportation -- automobile, bus or subway -- clearly place great value on punctuality and reliability, frequency of service, travel time, waiting time and cost."Changes in the Metro system which result in perceived improvements along these attributes would be expected to result in increased ridership," the survey said.

The survey gave credence to the belief that Metro's automatic fare-collecting equipment is not universally loved. More than half agreed with the statements "the fare machines always seem to be broken" and "fare machine breakdowns are a real inconvenience." There also is substantial support for simplified fare schedules and improved availability of Metro's various transit passes.

In other Metro matters yesterday:

The board approved the leasing to New York City of another 50 buses. New York has had to ground 637 of its new buses because of structural problems and already has leased 110 from Metro's reserve fleet.

The Metro staff said it will not be able to prepare new driver schedules and work assignments for planned bus service cuts to take place March 1, as it had earlier promised local governments. The cuts will take place April 12, instead. Although there are extenuating circumstances, the incident is the kind of thing that infuriates local budget offices around the region and gives Metro management a bad name, because delays in service cuts mean increases in subsidy requirements.