RIDING THE RAILS of Metro may always be more pleasant than enduring a teeth-jarring trip on a smoke-belching bus, but Metro General Manager Richard A. White is trying nevertheless to make bus-going more convenient. A number of new buses--complete with see-through windows, unstripped gears and genuine shock absorbers--are plying the streets, some of them with clearly intelligible destination signs. Recently the agency announced a focus on change of a major sort: exact change, which in time won't be required anymore.

New fare boxes are being ordered that will accept the same Farecards used for subways. The cards also will be available for purchase aboard buses. It will take until June 2002 to equip all 1,400 buses, but veteran bus riders are used to waiting. The fare boxes also will be equipped to accept Smartcard, the wave-it-on-your-way plastic cards now being used in the subways. Old-fashioned riders will still be able to get away with cash, but any return change will be on a farecard. The new system should be compatible also with other bus and rail systems in the region.

Mr. White says the move is part of a campaign to "redefine the image of the bus system, to show that it's not just for people who have no other choice." Bus ridership has been rising and is now approaching the level of the rail system. While more rail service will have to be built to handle the crushes to come, flexibility of routings and relatively lower costs will make convenient bus service an ever more important player.

Still, Metro shouldn't lose focus. New and simple fare systems help, but time is taking heavy tolls on Metro efficiency. The concentration--and money--still must be on maintaining a reliable and large enough stock of rail cars and buses to serve what should be a rapidly growing number of riders.