The gasoline shortage in the Washington area is begining to have a significant and measurable impact on the local economy, according to a survey of businesses and government officials.

With the advent of the third full week of persistent and pervasive lines at 1,500 area gasoline stations, the fuel shortage - for hundreds of thousands of people - has become more than riding on empty.

To William D. McDonald, marketing vice president of Woodward & Lothrop, the Washington area's largest general merchandise retailer, the recession has arrived: "Most of the crystal balling is, 'yes, we are in it,'" McDonald said yesterday, "The question is how far are we in it and how deep it will go."

But to most people, the gas shortage has come to mean staying closer to home, shopping less at suburban shopping malls and thinking more about public transportation.

People are buying bicycles and mopeds in record numbers. They are buying more books - perhaps to read on buses - and when they eat out, they choose a restaurant close to home.

Fewer people are coming to Washington for vacations, and people who live here are looking nearby to get away from it all, like the Kensington woman who called the Alexandria Tourist Council for bus directions to Northern Virginia.

"She had reserved a hotel room here for vacation closer to home because of the gasoline shortages," said Barbara Janney, tourist council director.

People also are changing the way they look for places to live. Real estate agents say close-in neighborhoods are now the hottest and prospective buyers quiz them incessantly about the proximity of public transportation.

Some outlying subdivisions were empty of buyers over the weekend and salesmen passed the day idling in front of sports programs on television.

Big automobiles have become overnight dinosaurs and people appear willing to pay premium prices for small, fuel-efficient cars.

One Volkswagen bus owner in McLean got $8,500 for his fuel-stingy camper, after driving it more than 20,000 miles over a year's time. His initial purchase price: $8,500.

Even the Good Humor man - the bellweather of a summer's afternoon tranquility in any neighborhood - has not been immune. A spokesman for the company headquarters in Englewood, N.J., said, "We are having unbelievable problems. We've just about used up our June (fuel) allotment, which means the trucks might not be on the road next week at all (and) the kiddies might not get ice cream.

The most obvious indicator that life styles have changed for thousands of Washingtonians are figures showing fewer cars on the roads and highways, whether bound for stores and restaurants or a favorite vacation resort.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge officials reported that the number of cars passing both ways over the span last Friday was more than 4,000 fewer than the same day last year. The number of cars passing through the Baltimore tunnel has been steadily declining in June.

At the same time, ridership on Metro buses and subway cars has increased dramatically, from a weekday average of 490,000 during june 1978 to a whopping 615,000 this month.

The stalwart of Washington's summer economy - its tourist trade - has slipped deeper into an early slump from which it might not soon recover without the return of ample gasoline supplies.

Tourmobile, the bus company that carries about 100,000 tourists a month to National Park Service attractions in the area, reports ridership off 20 percent in the first three weeks in June. "The traffic simply is not there," said Tourmobile's manager, Tom Mack. He attributed the falloff to fears by out-of-towners that gasoline in Washington was not available.

The number of cars that parked at the National Zoo during the first three weeks in June dropped from 20,745 last year to 13,044 this year.

There was similar declines at the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center - where visitors are trailing last year by nearly 150,000 - and the White House.

Parking lot companies in the city report a sharp decline in their business, between 25 and 30 percent during June.

Where the automobile lost ground as the most popular means of transportation, other forms gained.

"Schwinn [bicycles] has sold out it's entire year's production," said Tom Hignite, manager of a Chevy Chase bike service. "Their factories have gone on double shift and even with that they're having problems filling their orders."

A survey of area bicycle shops showed sales up 30 to 35 percent over last year. There are waiting lists of two to three weeks for the popular adult bikes.

"I think they're commuting," said Dan Dugan, manager of the Bicycle Pro Shop, of his customers."I ask them if they are and they don't want to answer . . . I know they're buying for that. People are looking for something reliable."

And when not riding, many people apparently are reading more. "People can't go anywhere, so they're picking up more books to read," said Tom Lichtenber, assistant manager of Georgetown's Book Annex.

A survey of five Northern Virginia car dealers showed sales have plummeted an average of 40 percent. Sales managers report fewer customers on their lots and dealers are reducing their inventories to cut costs and carry only the most popular models.

Gimmicks also abound. A Marlow Heights dealer is giving away 200 gallons of gasoline to new car buyers. A neighboring dealer is offering to defer the first installment on new car loans for 75 days.

"I think people are confused and are holding back," said Roger Marin, sales manager of Cherner Lincoln Mercury in McLean where sales have dropped 40 percent from last year.

Retail stores, large and small, have suffered with fewer customers, though stores located downtown and close to Metro lines appear to be weathering the early lethargy in sales.

"The other day I opened the store an hour and a half late because I was waiting in line for gas two and a half hours," said Chris Chakeris, who owns a men's clothing store in Bethesda. "No telling how many customers I lost," he said.

A nearby florist had a different problem: "I just had a lady in here who needs a delivery to Rockville. I cannot send a truck all the way out to Rociville for only one delivery," said manager May Fauquier.

Restaurants, especially those in outlying areas, appeared also hard hit. "Business was so bad that I've closed the restaurant for the past two Sundays. It's terrible, business has dropped at least 50 percent," said Astrid Wu, who manages the China Express in Landover Mall.

Spokesmen for the large suburban malls generally discounted the effects of the shortage on business, but behind-the-counter workers told of noticeable declines in traffic and sales.

At Bloomingdales in White Flint Mall, a department manager said, "The store's been empty - especially at night."

In the smaller shops, proprieters minced no words about the drop in sales. "The past Saturdays we had the least number of customers in six months, including a snowy Saturday in the winter," said Tiffany's bakery manager Tom Patterson at White Flint. CAPTION: Picture 1, At Union Station, an arriving passenger found a sign explaining the cab driver protest. He took the subway. By James M. Thresher - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Parking lot at 1229 Wisconsin Avenue NW - in the heart of Georgetown - had plenty of parking space yesterday. By Tom Allen - The Washington Post