TO THE UTTER SURPRISE of no one, Washington's gas shortage has produced a whole new crop of bus and subway riders. The question now is whether Metro can stand all this attention. Rush-hour buses have been turning away scores of people at the stops before crawling through traffic jams caused by gasoline lines. Subway stations have been grim, too, with breakdowns of trains, Farecard machines and escalators. Granted this may be a short-lived situation, but there are ways to ease the jams.

For one thing, roughly half of the people who come downtown to their jobs each day are due to start work at the same time: 8:30 a.m. So the same peak crowd hits the streets en masse, at 5 p.m. Even a half-hour change in the starting and quitting times of half these employees would greatly increase Metro's capacity to handle riders. But most employees don't make the decisions about what time they start and finish their shifts; the employers do, and one of the biggest - the federal government - is on of the most rigidly locked into the peak times.

Instead of continuing merely to talk about possible changes, or making piecemeal adjustments of starting times for scattered agencies, President Carter's Cabinet department should work out schedules that would relieve some of the pressure. In the meantime, private employers should examine their work schedules, too, to see if more hours couldn't be staggered. Metro itself, incidentally, is shifting about 1,100 of its headquarters' employees away from the 8:30-to-5 workday.

Can more buses be put on the streets at rush-hour? There are about 1,600 buses, and Metro officials note that about 250 older ones that were destined to be sold by fall are being kept in the fleet. Not only do those buses need work, they need drivers - which requires money. That, in turn, requires some new budget thinking on the part of the local governments of the region. But if the new subway riders mean less of a subsidy than projected for the rail system, why not divert those savings into better bus service? If the Metro board members are serious about keeping people out of cars - instead of discouraging them with huge jams at bus stops - they should seize the opportunity to deal with the equipment and manpower needs.