I have always wondered why it has taken more than 40 years to build a subway system for the nation's capital. But since we certainly seem to be taking our time about it, we should at least be making sure that the subway is convenient, accessible and inviting to all the area's residents. Otherwise, why bother?

The purpose of Metro supposedly is to cut down on the use of the automobile and provide a safe, fast and reliable means for people to get around. Unfortunately, Metro isn't doing that.

For most people living in Montgomery County, for example, taking the Metro is too complicated to be worth the effort. Metro doesn't stop within walking distance of the places where they live or work, so to use the system they either have to drive and park or take the bus.

Driving doesn't make much economic sense. Why take a $10,000 or $15,000 car out of the driveway, go a mile or two and then pay someone to keep it all day? Besides, try finding a parking space after 8 a.m. at any Metro station.

Riding the bus is scarcely better. With stops at every other street corner, buses are time-consuming. Further, because they are practically empty between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., they aren't economical to operate either, returning only about 38 cents on the dollar.

So what's the answer?

First, better planning. Residential centers, supported by shopping and services, should be encouraged near Metro stations.

And second, a new idea -- "Metrocab."

Metrocab would allow commuters to walk from home to a nearby corner and be picked up and taken to a Metro station within 10 or 15 minutes.

Montgomery County could be divided into small, specific territories assigned to individual drivers. Metrocab drivers would be in contact with a dispatcher if the need for additional cabs arose, thus avoiding delays for passengers.

The operation could be financed through a three-way partnership of Metro, Montgomery County and the Metrocab service. Each route could be a private entrepreneurship (ideal employment for some of our older citizens) with a percentage of the fares going toward maintaining the cab and a percentage to the driver. The county would carry the insurance. Metrocab might just be a way to curtail the building of more monstrous, unsightly and expensive parking facilities.

We need to change Metro from a commuter line into a true transit system. With husbands and wives often working in different locations, families today end up needing two cars. With the high cost of insurance and repairs, many families must spend as much as 80 percent of their income on just two items -- housing and automobiles. If they could leave one of those cars at home, their standard of living would improve, and not incidentally traffic congestion would be substantially reduced.

Montgomery County still has many areas untouched by congestion and development. We can preserve these parts of our community and achieve economic and social savings as well if, instead of extending roads and building homes, schools and shopping centers around them, we make maximum use of the existing infrastructure.

The community needs a real transit service, and Metro should encourage and participate in streamlining and improving its system. With a little cooperation, it can happen.

-- Ike Eisenstadt is a Montgomery County developer and chairman of the subcommittee on infrastructure of the county's Fiscal Affairs Committee.