The number of coveted parking spaces available to the able-bodied on crowded downtown streets is about to shrink as Baltimore begins reserving metered spots for disabled drivers.

Earmarking 200 metered spaces in the central business district is the first step in an 18-month plan to reserve 10 percent of spaces citywide. Officials hatched the plan to accommodate disabled drivers and combat the theft of handicapped placards — which until now have let drivers park anywhere in the city for free and have been a favorite target of thieves.

Under the plan, disabled motorists will have to pay to park in the newly designated spaces, making the placards that hang from rearview mirrors less attractive to steal.

Reaction has been mixed. Some drivers and business owners worry that the plan will make parking downtown even harder and restrict access for the disabled by limiting where they can park. Some in the disabled community, though, say they are delighted to have spaces reserved for them, even if they have to pay.

Disabled driver Ruth Ann Wynegar of Hamilton said she has to circle the blocks looking for parking whenever she goes downtown. If she can't find a metered spot near her destination, she pays more to park in a garage because it is difficult for her to walk long distances.

"I find it very frustrating and exhausting trying to find a space close to where I need to be," said Wynegar, a member of the Mayor's Commission on Disabilities.

But the possibility that the change would add to the parking headaches of others made Kandy Carr shudder. The Nottingham woman said she had to fight for a spot along Charles Street to make her dentist appointment one day last week.

"Parking spaces are like gold," Carr said.

The plan, called Project Space, was developed with the Mayor's Commission on Disabilities as a way to reserve spots for the disabled. Officials also noted that meter technology has advanced to the point that the machines can accept a credit card or coins without requiring users to turn a crank — which can be difficult for some disabled drivers.

The 10 percent figure mirrors the proportion of Baltimore adults who are eligible for disability placards or license plates.

Nearly 2,000 placards were stolen in 2012 from vehicles parked on city streets, according to the Parking Authority. The placards — which can fetch $150 to $300 on the black market — are the No. 1 item stolen from vehicles.

"The big problem is this abuse of disability placards," said Peter Little, director of the city Parking Authority. Not only do able-bodied thieves illegally park for free, but sometimes they "park on the street all day long," Little said. "That doesn't provide space for anybody to park, whether you have a disability or not."

Other places, including Arlington, Va., Asheville, N.C., and the state of Michigan, have enacted similar policies. The District of Columbia is preparing to launch a comparable program.

In Baltimore, drivers with handicapped placards or plates have been allowed to park free at meters since the early 1990s after Congress adopted the Americans with Disabilities Act. The old crank-style meters were declared noncompliant with the law.

Because of the number of stolen placards in circulation, the Parking Authority expects that hundreds of spots citywide will become available when placards no longer provide free parking. The agency's internal surveys show that vehicles with disability placards sometimes take up entire blocks of on-street spaces and stay parked for hours, he said.

Starting in April, the city will reserve 200 parking spots for disabled drivers downtown. Each spot will be marked with a sign bearing the handicapped logo — and each will have its own electronic meter. The meters, which are blue and stand about 3 feet tall, will accept payment without requiring drivers to return to their vehicle to place a receipt on the dashboard.

The first phase of the plan is expected to cost $600,000, which includes the purchase and installation of the 200 meters and a public marketing campaign.

Over 18 months, workers will move to implement the plan in the Harbor East and Fells Point neighborhoods, then Federal Hill, Mount Vernon and the rest of the city. Little said he did not have an estimate for the cost of the entire project.

In all, the city will install approximately 1,100 single-space meters. The spaces will allow disabled drivers to park for at least four hours, and the rate will be the same as for other meters.

Vehicles without a disability placard or license plate that use the spaces will be ticketed $502 and towed. Individuals with handicapped placards or plates will be ticketed $32 — the standard rate for expired meters — for not paying for parking at any metered space in a neighborhood where the plan has been implemented.