Frequent breakdowns, confusing schedule changes and cutbacks in service are driving people off Metrobuses, a newly released public survey commissioned by the transit authority shows. Metrorail often is considered to be more reliable and comfortable but too expensive.

About 18 percent of 502 people polled by telephone this summer said they believed that Metrobus schedules change "every few months" and 22 percent of bus riders among the sample said the changes were causing them to use the buses less frequently.

Drawing on these and other findings, a Metro study group called yesterday for better maintenance of cars, buses and the troublesome Farecard machines and less frequent changes in bus scheduling. The group was set up to try to reverse current ridership decreases, the first in the transit system's history.

Addressing Metro's revenue and operations committee, which is considering the recommendations, transit planner Robert Pickett said yesterday that in the past year "we changed 166 bus lines. We only have 128 lines. Some lines were changed more than once."

The team stressed measures it felt Metro could implement on its own without major cost. Fare reductions and large-scale expansion of routes were not viewed as realistic options -- although 14 percent of respondents said that two fare increases in the last year had caused them to use the system less.

The group's suggestions also included wider advertising of Metro's transit schedules and services (such as suburban parking lots), more courteous drivers and station attendants, more creative deployment of the existing cars and buses, and more attention to riders' complaints.

The team argued that with existing funding Metro could improve maintenance and reliability far beyond current levels. "A cleaner, better product must be made available to the public," a report said.

In conversations at downtown rail stations and bus stops yesterday, riders echoed many of the sentiments expressed in the survey. Some said they were satisfied with the current service. About half of the survey respondents had said they thought Metro fares were reasonable.

Thirise Taylor, a Capitol Hill computer operator, rides the subway daily between the Deanwood station and her job. Asked how Metro could improve, she said: "Stop going up in fares and improve the maintenance." She said she is frequently caught in 15- to 20-minute delays of rush hour trains .

An AFL-CIO official at McPherson Square said he normally comes to work by car pool from his home in Lanham. He had no complaints with Metro but found commuting by car cheaper and more convenient. Lower fares might make a rail commuter out of him, he said.

Retiree Veronica Downey, waiting for an S-2 bus to Silver Spring, said she often has been impressed with drivers in 40 years of riding Washington buses. "Many of the drivers are the most courteous people you'd want to meet," she said. " . . . You're coming across the street and they'll wait for you."

But Robyn Slade, a Howard University senior, said she rides Metrobus "only if I really have to, because it's just too crowded." More room on the buses would persuade her to ride regularly, she said.

Earlier this month, Metro released figures showing a 3 percent fall-off in ridership in the year ending June 30 as compared with the previous year. Most was due to drops in use of Metrobuses but rail registered a small loss, too.

In other business yesterday the Metro board:

Approved hearings into fare surcharges for three Connecticut Avenue bus lines if they continue to run downtown after the Red Line's Van Ness extension opens in December. As proposed, L-3 and L-9 passengers would pay a surcharge of 50 cents; on L-5s the extra charge would be between 45 and 60 cents.

Was told that Metrorail logged an estimated 400,000 rides on Solidarity Day last weekend -- its biggest load ever for a single day. That is about 100,000 rides more than on an average weekday.

Approved a 7.7 percent cost-of-living increase for Metro employes who are not covered by union contracts.